A Revised Look at the World
To the Editor:
In his Spring 2009 article, “The World Without Us” (vol. 22, no. 2), Ricardo Duchesne discusses my book Social Transformations: A General Theory of Historical Development (Blackwell, 1995) as an example of a view of history that embraces both cultural relativism and anti-progressivism. Duchesne’s main points are essentially these:
Sanderson contends that there is nothing inherent in the concept of social evolution that requires that it must be progressive.
Sanderson completely rejects the idea that social evolution has been progressive.
Sanderson concludes that hunter-gatherer societies have been the most progressive.
Sanderson concedes that the rise of industrial capitalism has improved living standards for the most advanced industrial countries, and to some extent for poorer countries, but also claims that the absolute number of the world’s people living in poverty has increased and the gap between the richer and poorer countries has widened.
Sanderson insists that hunter-gatherer bands and horticultural tribes were the truest democracies.
Regarding points 1 and 2, Duchesne’s characterization of my book is accurate. But further explanation is needed. The concept of social evolution is scientific and non-normative, whereas the concept of progress is explicitly normative; it considers whether or not social evolution has improved the human condition in certain ways. If a scholar wishes to consider both, he first attempts to determine the nature of social evolution, only after which is he entitled to inquire, if he wishes, as to whether these changes have led to improvements. The two are separate intellectual activities.
Contrary to Duchesne, I do not completely reject the idea that social evolution has been progressive. I emphasize, as Duchesne himself admits (contradicting himself), that the industrialization of the past two centuries has indeed led to progress. However, there is good evidence that progress did not occur in the transition from hunting and gathering, through horticulture, to agrarian states in terms of certain important criteria, which for me are the standard of living, the workload, the degree of social and economic equality or inequality, and the level of democracy and freedom. Research by several biological anthropologists on fossilized bones and teeth shows that people in later agricultural societies were generally less well nourished and less healthy than earlier hunter-gatherers. In agrarian societies, most people were peasants who were working extremely hard and enjoying a very low standard of living, not to mention being subjected to high levels of exploitation and oppression by a landlord class.
In terms of politics, in simple bands and tribes there were usually no elites who dominated and controlled the masses; decisions were often made through group deliberation, by leaders whose decisions were not binding, or by councils (this more or less answers point 5). However, powerful and oppressive elites began to arise in more complex horticultural chiefdoms and agrarian states. With the rise of capitalism and industrialism, there were dramatic reversals in the standard of living and the workload. Life has become inestimably better for people living in the most advanced industrial societies, and even for most people in most of the poorer countries. And parliamentary democracy has replaced extremely repressive agrarian states even though it is found in less than half of the world’s societies. All of this represents enormous progress, and it was Western civilization that led the way. (The role of the West in the modernization of the world is strongly emphasized in chapter 7 of Social Transformations, a chapter that is ninety pages long. Duchesne fails to mention this chapter.)
Those who still want to defend the idea that progress occurred in the long transition from hunting and gathering to agrarian states can point to such things as the rise of science, the creation of beautiful monumental architecture, the evolution of the major world religions, the creation of Roman commercial law, and so on. Fine. These things were progressive. It just happened that I was not considering them.
Regarding point 3, I do not claim or believe that hunter-gatherers are the most progressive. New evidence strongly challenges Marshall Sahlins’s famous contention that they constituted a kind of “original affluent society,” which I basically endorsed in 1995. The new evidence suggests that hunter-gatherers have often been subjected to long periods of starvation, and that one reason the workload was often light was that people had nothing much to hunt or gather, and so suffered a kind of enforced idleness. I would never want to live in this type of society or recommend it to anyone else.
Point 4 has been partially answered above. I would simply restate my original point that the gap between the richer and poorer nations has indeed been widening, but would hasten to add the all-important point that there has been an enormous improvement in the absolute standard of living for people living in the poorer nations. This is real progress. Moreover, after a reconsideration of the evidence, I would now say that the absolute number of the world’s people living in poverty has actually declined in recent decades and continues to decline. More progress. (For my latest thoughts on progress, see my Evolutionism and Its Critics [Paradigm Publishers, 2007], 307–25, and especially the paragraph on 325.)
I also wish to point out that I am not a cultural relativist and have not been for at least twenty-five years. In this regard, I invite the reader to examine my critique of this highly problematic notion in my Macrosociology (Harper and Row 1988), on pages 33 to 35. Societies can indeed be arranged along a scale of progress. Life in bands and tribes was very harsh, much closer to Hobbes’s “nasty, brutish, and short” than to Rousseau’s “noble savage.” I am now very uncomfortable being lumped in with some of the scholars Duchesne discusses in his article. I wrote a sharp critique of Wallerstein’s world-system theory several years ago (“World-Systems Analysis after Thirty Years: Should It Rest in Peace?” International Journal of Comparative Sociology [June 2005]), and now take a much more positive view of the modern world in general and capitalism in particular. I no longer endorse dependency theory and, after a careful weighing of new evidence, have shifted to an updated version of modernization theory. I am a staunch critic of multiculturalism, critical theory, “diversity,” and claims of “Eurocentrism.” I tend to view Western civilization in a very positive light when compared to other major civilizations, and lament the ideologically motivated critiques of it and its declining role in the curriculum. And I am extremely concerned about the pronounced leftward shift of the academy in the past two or three decades, which was one of the reasons I joined the National Association of Scholars over a dozen years ago.
Stephen K. Sanderson
Visiting Professor of Sociology
University of California, Riverside
Prof. Duchesne Responds
Prof. Sanderson complains that I mischaracterized his book Social Transformations: A General Theory of Historical Development in the one paragraph I dedicated to it in “The World Without Us.” I don’t think I attributed to Sanderson any ideas that he did not hold in this book. It seems to me that Sanderson, having changed his views considerably since he published this book, now wishes to project his new ideas back to it. I am pleased that Sanderson has changed his views. I, too, have changed my views a great deal in the last decade. I was quite sympathetic to his textbook, Macrosociology: An Introduction to Human Societies (third edition, HarperCollins, 1995), when I first used it for a course in 1996 as a newly hired professor. Sanderson did write in Social Transformations, as I indicated, that “throughout most of world history social evolution has been largely regressive” (336). He also identified Western uniqueness, in this book and in Macrosociology, with the rise of a capitalist world-system dedicated to the exploitation and underdevelopment of the rest of the world. He now thinks that Western civilization has “led the way” in bringing “enormous progress” to the world; but the view he held in Social Transformations, if I may quote another passage, was that “economic inequality at a world level has been increasing rather than declining over the past few centuries through the polarization between core and periphery” (354). I was unaware that Sanderson “wrote a sharp critique of Wallerstein’s world-system theory several years ago”; still, I was not mistaken in noting that Wallerstein was one of three scholars who influenced the thinking of Social Transformation “the most”—as Sanderson put it in the preface.
I also don’t think I was inaccurate in categorizing Sanderson’s line of thinking as that of a cultural relativist. While his Macrosociology textbook avoids “a strict cultural perspective” that would have us tolerate a whole host of abhorrent practices, it does refer to cultural relativism as a “useful and necessary…sort of practical guiding premise in exploring the nature of sociocultural systems” (44). None of this should detract from the fact that Sanderson has been a major contributor to the theory of social evolution. His willingness to alter his views and break away from the controlling magnet of Marxism and world system’s theory is testimony to the genuineness of his scientific approach to macro history.
Liberal Education and the Family: Further Thoughts
To the Editor:
I read your Winter 2008–09 issue [vol. 22, no. 1] on the family with great interest, if a little tardily. Each perspective there clarified for me the nature of and reasons for the academy’s attack on the family, and I thank Academic Questions and its contributors for that. I would, however, like to add one more perspective.
It seems to me that at all levels of school, but especially with undergraduates, some faculty enter into a kind of personal power struggle with their students’ families, for what I cannot say, perhaps each student’s loyalty or regard. All the theories and opinions referenced by these faculty in their effort, whatever their worth otherwise, simply become rhetorical cover for a more personal purpose or need. Childish and pointless as it all is, it should hardly surprise. The obsession with power and oppression exhibited in so much analysis in so many academic departments surely speaks to a broader more pervasive approach to life.
Member, National Association of Scholars
Partner, Senior Economist & Market Strategist
Lord, Abbett & Co. LLC
Jersey City, New Jersey