A Simplified Explanation of Social Evolution Theory

Christina Andrew Jun 9, 2019
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Social evolution theory, as the name suggests, is the evolution of social behavior over a period of time. Read on to know more about the definition and explanation of the theory.
"The only thing that is constant is change"

Evolution is growth

Evolution is growth. If we are evolving, we are growing―physically, mentally, behaviorally, socially, and spiritually.
Anthropologists, over the ages, have been studying the evolution of humans and the different aspects of it. One of them is the human behavior that keeps changing with time.
When we grow, we don't just grow in one direction or sphere, but in all. This growth leads to a change in our behavior pattern as well. You don't behave like a kid anymore, because you have gained the understanding of many such things that you didn't know as a kid. This prompts a huge difference in your behavior.
So, gaining knowledge, which is a never-ending process, causes your mind to evolve, and with it evolves everything else in you. Knowledge will come from the surrounding, from knowledgeable people around you, from your own observations, and from your interest in knowing things.
So as you move ahead in life, you will always be in a new surrounding with new people and things to observe, which will cause social evolution within you.
Social evolution is a sub-discipline of evolutionary biology (study of evolutionary processes that produced the diversity of life on Earth), which is mainly concerned with the evolution of social behavior that has fitness consequences for people other than those experiencing them.
Fitness consequence is the degree to which any action affects the fitness or survival of the species present there. Social behavior can be categorized according to the fitness consequences for the actor and recipient.

Categories of Social Behavior

Mutually beneficial

A behavior that increases the direct fitness of both the actor and the recipient.


A behavior that increases the direct fitness of the actor, but the recipient suffers a loss.


A behavior that increases the direct fitness of the recipient, but the actor suffers a loss.


A behavior that decreases the direct fitness of both the actor and the recipient.

Stages of Social Evolution

Social evolution has been divided into 5 stages for the sake of our convenience to help us understand the levels of this concept.

Unilinear social evolution

The concept is based on the idea that the evolution of culture is uniform and progressive. Societies were divided into three categories initially―savagery, barbarism, and civilization. Later as cultural diversity came into account, more subdivisions were created.

Psychic unity of mankind

"Some form of psychic unity is ...implied whenever there is an emphasis on parallel evolution, for if the different people of the world advanced through similar sequences, it must be assumed that they all began with essentially similar psychological potentials." (Harris, Marvin 1968 The Rise of Anthropological Theory: A History of Theories of Culture.)
The concept is based on the idea that human minds everywhere must be similar, since different people at different places and different time periods were evolving at almost the same pace.


"Meaningless customs must be survivals, they had a practical or at least a ceremonial intention when and where they first arose, but are now fallen into absurdity from having been carried on into a new state in society where the original sense has been discarded" (Hays, H. R. 1965 From Ape to Angel: An Informal History of Social Anthropology.)
Primitive customs are still alive in present-day cultures. Some customs are still followed, although the meaning of it has completely changed. Mostly the people following these customs don't even know what and why they are following it.

Primitive promiscuity

Early anthropologists like Morgan, McLellan, Bachofen and Frazer had the view that the original human society had no rules regarding sexual relations, incest, or marriage. But few others like Freud, believed that the original human society was like a primal patriarchal group, and also a monogamous type of family culture.

Stages of development

The theory of social evolution started with 3 divisions―savagery, barbarianism, and civilization―favored by the early theorists, which started to evolve, as it got carried on to the social evolutionists, Morgan and Edward B. Tylor, whose work 'Primitive Culture' in 1871, developed the theory of a progressive and evolving culture, from primitive to modern.
Imagine if everything had changed, except for our social behavior, customs, and ancient rituals. It is unimaginable, because today we have advanced so much in life that our now developed and evolved minds don't even let us think about things like these. It was probably because of this change in behavior that brought about a change in everything else.