Sanderson, Stephen K.

Sanderson, Stephen K.

Bio: (1945-) American sociologist. Stephen Sanderson holds a Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska and has taught at several American universities, including the University of California, Riverside. Throughout his career, Sanderson has developed an evolutionary perspective in the study of human societies, and his work represents a combination of knowledge from sociology, anthropology, history, evolutionary biology, and archeology. Sanderson presented his theoretical paradigm in several books: Social Transformations: A General Theory of Historical Development (1995), The Evolution of Human Sociality: A Darwinian Conflict Perspective (2001), World Societies: The Evolution of Human Social Life (2005), Human Nature and the Evolution of Society (2014).

                               Darwinian Conflict Theory

Sanderson calls his theoretical paradigm the Darwinian conflict theory, and it is a theoretical synthesis of several approaches: cultural materialism developed by anthropologist Marvin Harris; rational choice theory; the Weberian conflict approach; Gerhard Lenski's ecological-evolutionary theory; Immanuel Wallerstein's world systems theory; and the sociobiology. Sanderson believes that a comprehensive evolutionary theory must have the potential to explain both standard patterns of social evolution and unique ones. He strives to develop just such a theoretical paradigm, capable of explaining the general directions of social transformation, that is, periods of development, stagnation, and decline of society. Sanderson agrees with the sociobiological assumption that many aspects of human behavior are instinctive, that is, that they are a consequence of genetic adaptation that served to increase the reproductive success of individuals. Sanderson singles out several of these, as he calls them, innate instincts, or behavioral predispositions: selfish behavior for himself or his closest relatives; high sexuality, parental instinct (stronger in women), the pursuit of economic success and high status in society, as well as the instinct to achieve goals with the least possible effort. These behavioral predispositions are not rigid and how they will manifest depends on the physical and sociocultural environment.

The ecological, technological, demographic, and economic circumstances, in which different societies have developed over the last ten thousand years, have been crucial in creating different paths of social evolution. Sanderson believes that social evolution has no teleological purpose and that it represents the accumulation of individual behavior that occurred in response to the specific challenges of the environment in which these individuals lived. Social evolution is an adaptive process, and the only one who can experience adaptation is a specific human person because that person is the only one who has needs and desires. Although social evolution takes place at all levels, from individual families to global society, macroevolutionary processes are always a consequence of evolution at the micro level. This kind of evolution can sometimes lead to unintended consequences for the social structure. Social evolution is always dynamic because it is the product of a complex interplay of external factors (environmental, other societies), internal factors (social structure), and individual creative behavior (agency).

In all societies, there are relations of cooperation and conflict. When it is more convenient for individuals to cooperate, then cooperation prevails, while otherwise, conflicts develop. There are egalitarian relations and great cooperation in the societies of hunter-gatherers because such relations give the greatest chance to each individual to survive. With the development of agriculture and the increase of the population in societies, the selfish struggle to realize the benefit for oneself and one's relatives came to the fore, so it led to the formation of a relationship of superiority and subordination and economic exploitation. The most common forms of the relationship between superiority and subordination are based on divisions by gender, class, and ethnicity.

Marvin Harris elaborated on Marx's division of social reality into base and superstructure, and this division was taken over and further reworked by Sanderson. Sanderson introduces four levels of social reality: biostructure (human biology), ecostructure (basic type of economy and related technology), structure (economic-political base), and superstructure (patterns of mental life - beliefs, values, norms, cultural preferences). The course of causality and determination goes, in most cases, from the first to the later level. This means that the biostructure influences the formation of the ecostructure, which further influences the formation of the structure, which further shapes the superstructure. Once formed, structures and superstructures can achieve a certain level of autonomy in relation to the two previous levels.

Sanderson accepted the typology of stages of social evolution developed by Gerhard Lenski. Sanderson believes that the evolution of society has gone through several phases, that is, great social transformations, for which a fundamental change in the ecostructure was key. These phases are: hunter-gatherer societies, horticultural societies, agrarian societies (the emergence of states and civilizations), and finally, industrial societies. In each of these phases, as well as during the transformations between the phases, those deterministic forces that Sanderson singled out acted.

                                    Evolution of Religiosity

Sanderson studied the evolutionary basis of human religiosity, as well as the social evolution of religion, and the most important work that deals with that topic is the book Religious Evolution and the Axis Age (2018). He believes that human religiosity is innate and that it is a consequence of biological adaptation. As a confirmation of his hypothesis, he makes the following statements: 1) the universal presence of shamans, that were engaged in the treatment of diseases and the provision of vital resources in societies, in lower stages of evolutionary development; 2) religion has positive effects on physical and mental health; 3) religious people have more offspring; 4) several world religions originated in the period of the first millennium BC when there was a great social rift, and these new religions brought the idea of ​​an omnipotent, good and forgiving god who offers salvation from earthly torments.

Main works

Macrosociology: An Introduction to Human Societies (1988);

Social Evolutionism: A Critical History (1990);

Social Transformations: A General Theory of Historical Development (1995);

The Evolution of Human Sociality: A Darwinian Conflict Perspective (2001);

World Societies: The Evolution of Human Social Life (2005);

Revolutions: A Worldwide Introduction to Social and Political Contention (2005);

Studying Societies and Cultures: Marvin Harris's Cultural Materialism and Its Legacy (2007);

Evolutionism and Its Critics (2007);

Conflict Sociology (2009);

Rethinking Sociological Theories (2012);

Modern Societies: A Comparative Perspective (2014);

Human Nature and the Evolution of Society (2014);

Religious Evolution and the Axial Age (2018);

Race and Evolution: The Causes and Consequences of Race Differences (2022).

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