Book Summary: “Human Societies: An Introduction to Macrosociology” by Nolan and Lenski

Title: Human Societies: An Introduction to Macrosociology
Author: Gerhard Lenski
Scope: 5 stars
Readability: 3 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

If you enjoy this summary, please support the author by buying the book.

Topic of Book

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

If you would like to learn more how and why societies have changed throughout history, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

My Comments

Nolan and Lenski’s book (along with Lensk’s companion book “Ecological-Evolutionary Theory: Principles and Applications”) is foundational to my thinking on the topics of this blog. Their concept of “Society Types” is particularly important.
Perhaps no other book has more 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.

Important Quotes from Book

Much of the work of sociologists is devoted to the study of one or another of the many different component parts of societies (e.g., individuals, families, communities, classes) and to their specific features and problems (e.g., crime, race relations, religion, politics).

Macrosociology, in contrast, focuses on human societies themselves. Although it, too, is concerned with individuals, families, classes, social problems, and all of the other parts and features of societies, it analyzes them in relation to the larger social systems-the societies-of which they are part. In making comparisons, the most important task for scientists is to discover differences that make a difference.

One of the most important characteristics of scientific theories is that they are falsifiable. This means that they are stated in such a way that they can be tested and shown to be wrong, if indeed they are wrong.

Ecological-evolutionary theory, the theory that guides our study of human societies, avoids this by starting with three basic assumptions.

First, because human societies are part of the world of nature, they are all influenced by their environments in a variety of ways. Second, because human societies are part of the world of nature, their members, like the members of every other species, are endowed with a genetic heritage that profoundly influences their actions. Third, this genetic heritage enables the members of human societies – and them alone – to create symbolic cultural heritages, and it is this that gives human life its unique qualities.

This theory asserts that all of a society’s characteristics are ultimately due to just three things: (1) the influence of its biophysical and social environments, (2) the influence of our species’ genetic heritage, and (3) the influence of prior social and cultural characteristics of the society itself.

First, all humans have the same basic needs. These include such obvious physical requirements as the need for food, sleep, warmth, and oxygen.

Energy is easily the most vital product of societal activity, since without a continuous input of it, all activity would come to a halt: even thought requires energy! Food is the most basic source of energy.

Evolutionary change in a society is a cumulative process. Even in a society that appears to be changing rapidly, most elements of culture and social organization remain unchanged for extended periods.

When we compare different societies, we find that they produce innovations at greatly different rates. Some, such as American society, have had extremely high rates of innovation. In many others, the rate of innovation has been negligible.

There are a number of reasons for such variations, but one of the most important is the amount of information a society already possesses. One of the most important forms of innovation-invention-is the act of combining already existing elements of culture. This means that a society’s potential for invention is a mathematical function of the number of elements, or amount of information, already present.  In other words, the addition of each new unit more than doubles the number of possible combinations.

A second cause of variations in the rate of innovation is population size.” Because every member of a society has somewhat different needs and abilities, the more people there are, the more new ideas and information are likely to be produced.

A fourth factor influencing the rate of innovation in a society is the extent of its contact with other societies. The greater its interaction, the greater its opportunities to appropriate their innovations. In effect, contact enables one society to take advantage of the brainpower and cultural information of other societies through the process of diffusion.

But one kind of innovation that never fails to have far-reaching consequences is change in a society’s basic subsistence technology. For reasons that will become clear shortly, changes in subsistence technology have ramifications that are felt in almost every other area of life.

Sixth, the rate of innovation is greatly influenced by fundamental” innovations. Not all discoveries and inventions are of equal importance: a few pave the way for thousands more, while the majority have little effect. The invention of the plow and the steam engine and the discovery of the principles of plant cultivation, animal domestication, and metallurgy were all fundamental innovations. So, too, were the inventions of writing and money.

Before we leave the subject of the rate of innovation, it is important to note a tendency that is especially evident where technological innovation is concerned: it tends to occur at an accelerating pace.

The explanation of the acceleration is that each new bit of useful technological information acquired by a society increases the probability it will acquire still more.

Technology, as we have seen, is that part of a society’s store of cultural information that enables its members to convert the resources available in their environment into the material products they need or desire-food, clothing, shelter, and all the rest. But information alone is not enough: Energy is also needed.

Subsistence technology is the term used to refer to those elements of a society’s store of information that enable it to obtain the energy its members require, and it is no exaggeration to say that subsistence technology provides the key to understanding societal growth and development. Specifically, advances in subsistence technology are a necessary precondition for any significant increase in either the size or the complexity of any society.

In short, technology defines the limits of what is possible for a society.

Since one of the important consequences of technological advance is that it increases the range of options available to societies and their members, such advance leads to greater scope for the exercise of beliefs and values.

Because technologically advanced societies have had the advantage in this process of Inter-societal selection, their characteristics have increasingly come to be the characteristics of the world system as a whole.

The reason for these trends is that the rise of technologically more advanced societies contributed directly to the decline of those less advanced. For when horticultural societies appeared, the chances for survival of neighboring hunting and gathering societies were substantially reduced unless they too adopted the new technology. The same was true for both hunting and gathering and horticultural societies after agrarian societies appeared. The less advanced societies lacked both the numbers and the weapons needed to defend themselves against the more advanced societies that coveted their territories and other resources. Those that managed to survive did so only in remote and isolated areas.

One of the most important consequences of technological advance, according to ecological-evolutionary theory, is an increase in the size of societies.

A third important prediction of ecological-evolutionary theory is that technological advance is linked to greater complexity of the social system.

But subsistence technology is not just any characteristic chosen at random from the almost endless list of societal characteristics. On the contrary, it appears to be the single most powerful force responsible for the most important differences among human societies.

Horticultural Societies:

The emergence of these urban centers was largely the result of the military success of villages that had one important advantage: bronze weapons.

The importance of this development can hardly be exaggerated. For the first time in Chinese history people found that the conquest of other people could be a profitable alternative to the conquest of nature. Much the same thing happened in other parts of the world at this same stage of societal development. Thus, beginning in advanced horticultural societies and continuing in agrarian, we find almost as much energy expended in war as in the more basic struggle for subsistence. One might say that bronze was to the conquest of people what plant cultivation was to the conquest of nature: both were decisive turning points in sociocultural evolution.

Of all the changes in human life that resulted from the horticultural revolution, the most fundamental-the one with the most profound consequences-was the creation of a stable economic surplus.

The thousand years or so immediately preceding 3000 II.C. were perhaps more fertile in fruitful inventions and discoveries than any period in human history prior to the sixteenth century,

Agrarian Societies:

As long as wars were brief and limited to skirmishes with neighboring peoples, militias were adequate. But once rulers became interested in empire building, a new system was necessary. As early as the middle of the third millennium, would-be empire builders in Mesopotamia established small but highly trained professional armies.

Because these three lines of cleavage tended to converge, their impact was greatly magnified. The small and often literate urban governing class lived in a strikingly different world from that of the illiterate, rural, peasant majority-despite the fact that they were members of the same society. Each group had its own distinct subculture.

In many respects the differences within simple agrarian societies were greater than differences among them.

Another significant development in these societies was a marked slowdown in the rate of technological innovation and progress.

The two thousand years after the revolution-say from 2,600 to 600 B.C.-produced few contributions of anything like comparable importance to human progress.

As the older system of a militia that included all of a society’s able-bodied men was replaced by a professional army, there was a substantial increase in the power of the governing class, which controlled the new army. New beliefs and values emerged that justified and legitimized the new system and thereby reinforced it and made it even worse. Thus, the governing class found it increasingly easy to extract most of the economic surplus from the peasants, so that peasants were left with little more than the bare necessities of life.

As a result, the peasants lost the incentive for innovation, knowing that any benefits that resulted from their inventions and discoveries would simply be appropriated by the governing Class, whereas losses-which could be devastating given the peasant’s narrow margin of survival-would be borne by themselves.  At the same time, the governing class, though it had a vested interest in a more productive economy, no longer had the necessary knowledge of, and experience with, subsistence technology and thus was in no position to make creative innovations. In short, expertise and incentive were inadvertently divorced, with disastrous results for technological progress.

In many respects the economy of the typical agrarian society resembled a tree with roots spreading in every direction, constantly drawing in new resources… At the economic center of the society was the national capital, controlled by the king or emperor and the leading members of the governing class. Surrounding it were various provincial or regional capitals controlled by royal governors and other members of the governing class. Each of these in turn was surrounded by smaller county seats and market towns controlled by lesser members of the governing class. Finally, each of these towns was surrounded by scores of small villages.

In this system, there was a steady flow of goods from smaller units to larger, or from villages to county seats, and then on to regional and national capitals. Basically this flow was achieved by means of taxation, but it was supplemented by rents, interest on debts, tithes and other religious offerings, and profits, all of which helped to transfer the economic surplus from the peasant producers to the urban-based governing class, its allies, and their dependents.

In most advanced agrarian societies, the governing elite (which included religious leaders) owned a grossly disproportionate share of the land… Typically, a minority of 1 to 3 percent of the population has owned from one-third to two-thirds of the arable land in these societies.

In most societies it appears to have been at least half the total value of the goods the peasants produced. The basic philosophy of the governing class seems to have been to tax peasants to the limit of their ability to pay. ‘

All this was made possible by the labors of the peasantry.

Because of the absence of significant commercialization, most of the intra-societal conflict in simple agrarian societies was intraclass. Members of the governing elite competed and fought one another for social position and control of territory, and, at the village level, individual peasants and peasant families competed for access to the best farmland. What did not happen was conflict between these classes. Even wars of conquest were conflicts among elites, not between elites and peasants, and replacement of one elite by another often had little effect on the lives of peasants. In many ways the classes lived in different worlds.

The combined income of the ruler and the governing class in most advanced agrarian societies equaled not less than half of the total national income, even though they numbered 2 percent or less of the population.

Despite their many similarities, the polities of advanced agrarian societies varied in a number of ways, the most important being the degree of political centralization.

There is, however, one important difference. In the less advanced societal types (i.e., hunting and gathering, fishing, and simple horticultural), intra type variation is due primarily to differences in the biophysical environment…  In advanced agrarian societies, on the other hand, differences in the biophysical environment have not been as important a cause of intra-type variation.

The greatest variations among advanced agrarian societies stemmed not from ideological differences but from differences in their social environments. These differences were of two kinds.

One involved proximity to trade routes and the other the influence of frontier territories.

From the standpoint of trade, the most advantageous location for a society was at the point where several important trade routes intersected. Having such a location ensured continuing contact with a large number of other societies and increased opportunities for acquiring useful information through diffusion. It also provided a valuable source of income and fostered economic growth and development. Societies that were not so well situated were handicapped and tended to be less developed.

A very different kind of environmental influence made itself felt when agrarian populations expanded into territories that previously were uninhabited or were inhabited by smaller, less advanced societies. Under the radically altered conditions that were encountered, traditional patterns of life often broke down and a new and different kind of society-a frontier society-emerged briefly.

To begin with, the settlers themselves tended to be the poor, the dispossessed, the noninheriting sons and daughters, troublemakers, misfits, and even criminals deported by the parent society. Frontier regions held little attraction for the rich and powerful, who preferred to remain close to the traditional centers of power and influence. Thus, in frontier regions established authority was usually weak or absent, and

Looking back, it seems clear that the frontier experience was excellent preparation for the Industrial Revolution. Above all, it established a tradition of individual initiative, innovation, and receptivity to change that was lacking in other agrarian societies. Also, by creating a more egalitarian class system, the frontier prepared the way for the more open and fluid class systems of modern industrial societies. These developments help explain the relative ease with which the overseas English-speaking democracies (e.g., the United States, Australia, and Canada) made the transition to the industrial era, and why they have so long been in the forefront with respect to productivity, standard of living, and political stability. It is interesting.

The single most important consequence of the greater economic surplus was further growth of the state and of the power of the governing class that controlled it.

Industrial societies:

First, the Industrial Revolution has greatly increased the amount of energy available to societies.

Second, the Industrial Revolution has produced thousands of new machines which use this energy to perform an enormous variety of tasks.

Third, the Industrial Revolution has made available many new materials to use in the construction of new machines and new products.

Collectively, these three sets of innovations-the vast new stores of energy, the new machines, and the new materials-have transformed the world.

In preindustrial societies, traditions have always been held in high esteem and change has generally been viewed as undesirable, even dangerous. Innovators, far from being praised or admired for their efforts, have commonly been accused of abandoning the hallowed ways of the past and of their forebears. Because of this strong attachment to the past, social scientists often refer to preindustrial societies as “traditional” societies.

In contemporary industrial societies, in contrast, the attitude toward innovation and change is largely positive. Members of these societies are not just tolerant of innovation: they actively promote and encourage it. Many, in fact, are neophiles, people who love novelty for its own sake.

If you would like to learn more how and why societies have changed throughout history, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

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