Seth Abrutyn


Through the first millennium bce, religio-cultural revolutions occurred in China, Greece, Israel, and India. Commonly referred to as the Axial Age, this epoch has been identified by some scholars as period of parallel evolution in which many of the World Religions appeared for the first time and humanity was forever changed. Axial scholarship, however, remains in an early stage as many social scientists and historians question the centrality of this era in the human story, while other unsettled debates revolve around what was common across each case. The paper below considers the Axial Age from an evolutionary-institutionalist’s perspective: what was axial was (1) the first successful religio-cultural entrepreneurs in human history and, thereby, (2) the evolution of autonomous religious spheres distinct from kinship and polity. Like the Urban Revolutions that qualitatively transformed human societies 3,000 years prior, the Axial Age represents a reconfiguration of the physical, temporal, social, and symbolic space in irreversible ways.

Why Groups Matter to Sociocultural Evolution

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

Seth Abrutyn

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.