Why Groups Matter to Sociocultural Evolution

How Religio-Cultural Entrepreneurship Drove Political and Religious Evolution in Ancient Israel

in Comparative Sociology
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Evolutionary concepts have a rich history in sociological theory, from Spencer to Durkheim, Marx to Weber. Recently, a neo-evolutionary revival has occurred in the social sciences, (1) bringing neuroscience into dialogue with age old sociological questions of origins; (2) considering the gene-culture relationship; and (3) constructing sweeping general theories of sociocultural evolution. Generally, the role collective actors play in the evolutionary process is taken for granted, as is the contingent, multi-directional, and multi-linear paths evolution takes when we focus on specific cases. The paper below examines the evolution of the ancient Israelites from the 8th–6th centuries bce, teasing out a theory that supplements these other important areas. Specifically, it is argued that (a) institutional entrepreneurs are the collectives that drive sociocultural selection processes by innovating organizationally, normatively, and symbolically; (b) their cultural assemblages are sources of variation upon which sociocultural forms of selection, like Spencerian or Marxian, can work; and, (c) institutional spheres evolve and become “survivor machines” for the entrepreneur’s assemblage, imposing it on a significant proportion of the population and reproducing it across time and space.

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