Books and Reviews


Social Transformations. A General Theory of Historical Development. Expanded Edition

We continue today (May 9, 2000) our book review feature with Charles Tilly's reviews Stephen Sanderson's "Social Transformations. A General Theory of Historical Development. Expanded Edition." Stephen Sanderson writes a response clarifying his position. Share your thoughts on the book or the review by posting a message at the end of the review. This review will be published in paper form in the Canadian Journal of History.

Review by Charles Tilly

Requisites for a visibly viable evolutionary explanation of anything include three elements: 1) a unit or set of units that produces innovations and stores their results; 2) a variable and changing environment to which the unit or set of units responds; 3) one or more selection mechanisms both a) relating unit to environment and b) transmitting traces to the unit’s successors. Explanations of biological evolution, strictly conceived, currently differ in their relative emphases on genes, individuals, and populations as the units crucially at risk to change, in features of the environment (e.g. slow climatic changes vs. quick collisions with asteroids) affecting selection, and in the impact of various selection mechanisms (e.g. selection through mating behavior vs. selection through survival). Revising his compendious 1995 application of evolutionary ideas to social processes, Stephen Sanderson has now hitched his hopes to the uncertain horse of sociobiology. The 1995 version still constitutes the bulk of his book, with a half–page preface and a 23–page afterword linking the older presentation of his “evolutionary materialism” to more strictly biological explanations. As Sanderson says clearly, he has adapted ideas from Gerhard Lenski, Marvin Harris, and Immanuel Wallerstein to world history. He has not, alas, modeled his expository style on Jared Diamond or Dan Sperber, but instead chosen as templates his mentors’ more academic treatises. That means few compelling puzzles, fewer stories, and many, many citations.

Sanderson’s main argument treats the individual (not the gene or the population) as the unit undergoing evolution, assigns the behavior of other humans far more prominence in the individual’s environment than is the case in most biological accounts, and allows a wide variety of selection mechanisms. Seen as a relation among environments, human consumption patterns, and numbers of persons, for example, population pressure figures repeatedly in his account as a cause of human innovations, most of them involving new forms of production. Sanderson insistently calls attention to independently initiated parallel developments such as the emergence of states and the creation of trading networks; those parallels, he argues, confirm the importance of widely operating evolutionary mechanisms. He sets his face firmly against functional accounts, by which he means explanations by reference to the general welfare of a society or of all humanity. In opposition to society–level explanations, Sanderson introduces the portmanteau notion of individual–level “human needs.” That allows him to argue that social evolution selects for individual adaptations better serving such needs.

In practice, Sanderson divides his work into two different tasks: first, identification of broad periods and regions in which certain momentous long–term transformations (for example, the development of agriculture) occurred; second, interpretations of those transformations as aggregated consequences of adaptations at the individual level. On such a basis, he provides quick takes on humanity’s entire history: the Neolithic Revolution, the emergence of civilization and states, transformations of agrarian states, the rise of capitalist economies and their evolution into a world–system, the institutions of modernity, the question of progress, and the future. After a dense theoretical introduction, Sanderson takes up his topics in roughly chronological order, generally following compact summaries of what happened in the Neolithic Revolution or the rise of capitalist economies with extensive discussions of competing explanations for what happened. That procedure leads inevitably to a good deal of pontificating in the style “X says this, Y says that, I prefer Y for the following reasons, but we must modify Y’s argument by introducing element Z,” complete with extensive quotes from X and Y plus citations of Sanderson’s previous publications. Nevertheless, the book usually provides even–handed, comprehensible accounts of the questions under dispute and of the contributions made by various synthesizers to resolution of those questions. Later in the book, furthermore, pages begin to fill with useful compilations of data on such matters as state expenditure and class composition of industrial countries. As a historiographic and synthetic complement to a conventional world history, Social Transformations would serve teachers quite well.

Covering all of human experience in 400–odd pages, Sanderson takes some dubious positions. He defines the state, for example, as “a form of sociopolitical organization that has achieved a monopoly of the means of violence within a specified territory” (56). Despite the Weberian pedigree of his definition, it describes an empty set. As a resident of the United States, Sanderson should be well aware of limits to any state’s control over violent means; in fact, no government of any size has ever monopolized means of violence within its territory. Again, Sanderson turns to the sort of functional reasoning he has earlier castigated when arguing that the contemporary competitive interstate system came into being because “only an interstate system is capable of maintaining the vigorous economic rivalry and competition that is necessary for capitalism” (235). Sanderson has not yet woven a seamless web from his evolutionary threads.

Sociobiology, in any case, forms an odd base for any such world history. Sociobiology shifts the crucial unit from the individual to the gene, represents the environment as consisting of other genes and their embodiments in organisms, then proposes genetic mutation plus sexual selection as its crucial mechanisms. Sanderson’s summary of the “synthetic materialism” he proposes to merge social evolution with sociobiology actually sticks to individuals as its units. It also interprets such collective arrangements as authoritarian regimes and unequally distributed private property as consequences of biologically–driven individual mechanisms without in the least either specifying those mechanisms or suggesting how they aggregate into complex systems of power. The gap between ambition and accomplishment looms large.

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Response to Reviewers’ Comments by Stephen Sanderson

Charles Tilly is well known as one of the toughest critics around, so it is rare that someone will emerge from one of his reviews unscathed. I, of course, am no exception. In this light, I am gratified that Tilly sees my Social Transformations as a very useful historiographic and synthetic complement to traditional world history. But what are his objections? Let us take them in their order of severity.

Tilly complains most about my failure to show how, in my new theory that I call synthetic materialism, I fail to show how biologically driven individual mechanisms become aggregated into complex systems of stratification and power. Because of this, Tilly concludes that my theoretical ambitions greatly exceed my actual accomplishments. This would be true if the afterword to the expanded edition were the last word on the subject; it is, however, barely the first word and is only intended to establish a link between that work and my latest book, Synthetic Materialism: A Unified Evolutionary Theory of Human Society. In this work, which is virtually finished and should appear in the spring of 2001, the general theory is laid out in much greater detail, mechanisms linking the individual and the aggregate levels are specified, and some 300 manuscript pages are devoted to a basic summary of some of the evidence that supports the theory. With this book I think that the gap between ambition and accomplishment is closed considerably, which is not to say that Tilly would necessarily agree with the book’s arguments. In fact, he probably wouldn’t.

There are two less severe criticisms made by Tilly. In the first instance, he criticizes my definition of the state as an organization having a monopoly of violence over a specified territory and claims that no government that could be called a state has ever maintained such a monopoly. Tilly misses the point. As I make clear on pp. 56-57, the argument is not that a state must have a complete monopoly over the means of violence, only that it must control the means of violence to such an extent that it can nearly always crush successful rebellion from below. Of course it is true that in, for example, the contemporary United States, some means of violence are in the hands of everyday citizens. This is probably the case in all states, both modern and premodern. But the means of violence in the hands of the citizenry are extremely feeble relative to those in the hands of the state. As an expert on revolutions and other forms of collective violence, Tilly knows quite well that true social revolutions are relatively rare, and never occurred at all prior to the early modern world.

Tilly’s other minor criticism—I guess I would call it minor—is a lament that I chose an academic writing style rather than the more breezy, informal style of a Dan Sperber or a Jared Diamond. The criticism that an academic is using an academic writing style is, I have to admit, rather baffling. I haven’t read Sperber, but Diamond’s latest book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, is clearly intended for a mass as well as an academic audience (one sees it in popular bookstores). That is a choice an author makes. Social Transformations was certainly not intended for a popular audience, and I plead guilty to using the more academic style of a Gerhard Lenski or an Immanuel Wallerstein. The odd thing about Tilly’s criticism is that it is the opposite of that usually made—“vulgar popularization”—which seems to me a much more serious charge.

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