Some thinkers take an optimistic picture of human development but do not look at history as following a necessary course. One of these ideas suggests that there are certain universal ideas or even institutions that are fundamentally common to different societies. Let us explore some of these ideas.
The Universality of Social Beliefs
The American sociologist Talcott Parsons argued that there are sociological evolutionary universals, that is, social structures, beliefs, and institutions that are so advantageous that every culture everywhere eventually develops them. The incest taboo, for example, is found in all societies.
Similarly, the notions of kinship and social stratification are universals. They may change over time. They may become more or less central to life in the society, but they’re a step in the cultural history of every society.
Sometimes this development is independent, that is, cultures on their own come up with the same adoption of values or structures. Other times, the ideas are spread or borrowed between cultures. Unlike biological evolution where the genome of each species is contained in the organisms of the species, here, social genetics can spread around through contact. As a result, we observe cultural patterns that are replicated around the globe.
This is a transcript from the video series Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Universality of Bureaucracy
As much as we complain about red tape, bureaucracy is an essential element for human progress. Parson argues that you will find bureaucracy in any part of the world. Power is distributed in all cultures and as a result, some have it and some don’t. When the power rests with a particular individual, let’s say a king or dictator, and is not invested in the office apart from the office holder through an established governmental structure, this leads to civil instability.
Now, if you become king by killing the current king, then the result is constant changes in power, universal suspicion, and the lack of an ability to create the sort of cultural institutions that lead to higher cooperative tasks in the division of labor.
But once power is invested in the office—in the position and not the person—we can establish rules by which a peaceful transfer of power occurs. Power can then be distributed so that the society can acquire specialists who focus on solving specific problems for the society as a whole. Bureaucracy creates levels of authority that insulate the culture from special interests at the top and allow jobs to be done by those with specific competencies.
Learn more about the reality of money.
The Legalization of Influence
Parsons argues that money, taxes, police, and markets are social evolutionary universals. The minute you have both bureaucracies and money, you get questions of improper influence. And so, every culture has some sort of cultural norm that establishes a line between legitimate lobbying and corruption and bribery.
But this line is meaningless if it’s not taken seriously. As a result, there must be some culturally created body which is given the authority to enforce these rules. The result is the formalization of norms into laws and a legal system that provide a negative incentive to those contemplating violating them.
So, what we see according to Parsons is a development of culture in a predictable way that leads to better and better standards of living. It’s not the Marxist picture, but similar to it in that it starts with an optimistic picture of human nature, and posits a set of steps that all lead in the direction of human progress.
The Progressive Flow of History
No matter where you go, when you look in the large scale, things are better now than they used to be. Sure, there will be blips and backward steps from time to time when ruffians temporarily seize power, but overall, the flow of history is progressive.
Again, this sentiment is not limited to the social optimists. Social pessimists also see the culture as progressing. One name that’s often invoked is the Russian-born, American émigré, social theorist, and novelist Alisa Rosenbaum—better known by her pseudonym, Ayn Rand.
According to Rand and other thinkers of the middle of the twentieth century, the marketplace is as brutal to ideas as nature is to organisms. As a result, we see free markets and democratically elected governments always producing the best results. Humans are rational, and self-interested, and will always look for an edge, an advantage, a new and better way of doing things. The field isn’t static. It’s not always the same game. The competition causes adaptation—new developments that were unforeseen. The ones that work radically transform the landscape, and the society, thereby moves forward.
Learn more about competition and cooperation.
Free Competition: Pros and Cons
The key, they argue, is for people—especially the government—to stay out of the way of the progress. It’s the unevenness that provides the incentive to innovate and the innovations that make life better for everyone.
There will be inequity. There will be suffering. But when we take the long view, the suffering will be much less as a result of letting the process run its course. We must not take the battery away from the engine of innovation by removing the differential of wealth and power.
Those are the motivating factors for rational, self-interested beings, and they must remain in play. When they do, the result is social progress, technological advancement, and wealth creation. It’s a tide that will lift all boats. Do not handicap the great for the sake of the mediocre, because the great are the ones who will create, out of whole cloth, the advancements that will drive human society forward.
In the first half of the twentieth century, the modernist mind––whether it was optimistic or pessimistic––bought into the proposition that social reality is progressive, that human society, over time, is getting better and better. The social structures under which we live are responsible for laying the groundwork for individual human flourishing. Those structures are becoming more complex and better adapted at solving the problems that plague us.
Common Questions about Complex Social Structures: Bureaucracy and Other Systems
Talcott Parsons argued social structures and beliefs are so advantageous that every culture everywhere eventually develops them.
Bureaucracy creates levels of authority that insulate the culture from special interests at the top and allow jobs to be done by those with specific competencies.
The social structures under which we live are responsible for laying the groundwork for individual human flourishing. Those structures are becoming more complex and better adapted at solving the problems that plague us.