Book Summary: “Ecological-Evolutionary Theory” by Gerhard Lenski


Ecological-Evolutionary Theory

Title: Ecological-Evolutionary Theory: Principles and Applications
Author: Gerhard Lenski
Scope: 5 stars
Readability: 3 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system (add link to this page).

Topic of Book

Lenski builds a theory that explains the development and transformation of human societies.

My Comments

Lenski’s book (along with his companion book “Human Societies: An Introduction to Macrosociology”) is foundational to my thinking on the topics of this blog. His concept of “Society Types is particularly important.
Perhaps no other book has influenced my thinking on how human societies develop. While it is often dry reading, everyone interested in the topic of this blog should read both books.

Other books by the same author

Key Take-aways

Lenski builds upon Julian Steward’s theory of cultural ecology and presents a multi-causal theory to “explain as many as possible of the most important characteristics of human societies, both individually and collectively, past as well as present, as parsimoniously and falsifiably as possible.”

For Lenski, the primary causes of the development of human societies are:

  1. Biology/Genetics/Natural Selection
  2. Biophysical Environment (particularly climate)
  3. Technology

Other important variables are:

  • Ideology
  • Population size
  • Sociocultural Organization
  • Societal Selection

Lenski believes that societies can best be understood if they are grouped into society types based upon their subsistence technology and the biophysical characteristics of their environment (particularly climate). “Technology, interacting with genetics and the biophysical environment, determines the outer limits of what is possible for the members of any society at any given time. Second, technology, again interacting with genetics and the biophysical environment, profoundly influences the choices that individuals and societies make among the options available to them.

The society types are:

  1. Hunting and Gathering societies
  2. Herding societies
  3. Fishing societies
  4. Horticultural societies
  5. Agrarian societies
  6. Maritime societies
  7. Industrial societies

Societies are highly immune to change. Change usually comes from conquest, trade or immigration from more technologically advanced society types. Over time, more advanced societies absorb and change less advanced neighboring societies.

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