A Guide to Evolution and Behavior

The theory of evolution has had an important impact on sociology over the decades. Sociology is the study of human social behavior, and evolution is the scientific theory that organisms change over time, developing adaptations that make them more fit to survive in their environment. Evolution is a long-term natural process studied by biologists, geneticists, botanists, paleontologists, and others in the “hard” sciences. Sociology is a “social science” that advances using the collected observation of human social groups by sociologists. The idea that evolution might have explanatory power in understanding social behavior has influenced sociological theory in many ways.


Sociology began its existence grounded in questions of the “disintegration” of traditional society. The French philosopher Auguste Comte founded the academic study of social behavior in the 1830s in response to the upheavals of the French Revolution. Sociology was to be a “positivist” science, explaining human behavior by rational, material processes – over time, this outlook dovetailed with the then-controversial idea that life on Earth had gradually evolved by natural means. Even the earliest sociologists felt that social behavior “evolved” over time into forms better adapted for survival. The German social thinker Karl Marx was the first to establish a theory of human social orders progressing from simple slave states to modern economies over time based solely on material causes. This came years before the 1859 publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species explaining his theory of evolution.

Alexis de Tocqueville: French aristocrat (1805 – 1859) whose book Democracy in America (1835) explored American-style democracy; he later adopted the position that Europe must adapt to democracy to survive.

Auguste Comte and Positivism: French scholar (1798-1857) and first academic sociologist; his life and beliefs explained.

Emile David Durkheim: French sociologist (1858-1917) who worked to make sociology a “scientific” discipline and explored questions of the disintegration of traditional social order in modern times.

Karl Marx: Father of communist theory (1818 – 1883) who posited a “materialist” theory of the evolution of societies over time and made many other contributions to sociological thought. Many of his works are collaborations with his colleague, Friedrich Engels.

Max Weber: German sociologist and economist (1864-1920) who theorized on the relationship between religion, modern society, and the development of capitalism.

Environmental Sociology: Introduction to the sociology of the natural environment.

Sociology of Knowledge: Thematic study of the sociology of knowledge, the creation and production of “understanding” throughout social groups.

Sociology of Race and Ethnicity: Academic hub for exploring the sociology of race and ethnicity, a branch of sociology dealing with the construction of race identity and the sociology of race interactions.

Sociology of Religion: Cited, cross-referenced introduction to the sociological study of religious groups and religious understanding.

Social Behavior

Social behavior is the collected activities of people or other animals in groups of their own species. Social behavior can be as simple as two people talking or as complex as thousands carrying out complicated political, professional, or economic transactions. Sociologists began with an interest in how whole societies grow and change, but it was biology that made it possible to explore more basic behaviors. Using fossils, scientists like Raymond Dart and Mary Leakey helped establish the relationship of the human species to other primates. These animals, like humans, exhibit behavior we might recognize as “manners” or “etiquette.” Such behaviors demonstrate a hierarchy of dominance and allow for cooperation. In human societies, “dominance” is less acceptable and the concept of respect is expressed through pleasing manners. With greater understanding of humanity’s past, sociology has grown to study all facets of behavior.

Darwin: Biographical resources on British biologist Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882) whose observations of wildlife in the Galapagos Islands and subsequent writings made him “the father of evolutionary theory.” Includes letters and writings.

Complete Works of Charles Darwin Online: Charles Darwin’s collected writings available online.

Gregor Mendel: About the Austrian priest and biologist (1822 – 1884) whose observations contributed to understanding of heredity in plants and animals.

Leakey Family: All about Mary and Louis Leakey, British archaeological couple who discovered important ape fossils and contributed to an understanding of human evolution.

Raymond Dart: Australian paleontologist (1893-1988) who discovered the “Taung child”, a fossilized specimen “between” human and ape.

Introduction to Evolution and Evolutionary Biology: An overview of the subject.

Human and Ape Behavior: Carefully cited article on similarities in ape and human behavior from an expert-reviewed online encyclopedia project.

Early Theories of Evolution and Natural Selection: A discussion and analysis of evolutionary theories predating and contemporary with Charles Darwin and their influence.

Thomas Malthus: More on the thought of the British political economist (1766-1834) and his influence on Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

Evolutionary Theory: An in-depth technical overview of the current state of evolutionary theory.


Psychology has also been influenced by the theory of evolution. The psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, whose practice began in 1885, believed that each person’s subconscious mind was fraught with desires stemming from earlier phases of evolution. These desires, suppressed by modern society, accounted for much of neurotic behavior. Likewise, an individual’s personality was at least partially determined by heredity. Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, disagreed with Freud on many points, but believed that human behavior could be understood partially by a “collective unconscious” that had evolved within the human species over time thanks to shared circumstances and experiences over the evolutionary process. Today, psychology continues to explore the relationship between man’s primitive past and the workings of the modern mind.

Sigmund Freud: Life and work of the founder of modern psychoanalysis, who lived 1856 – 1939.

Carl Jung: Biographical sketch of the Swiss psychiatrist (1875 – 1961) believed second only to Freud in the development of modern psychology.

Kurt Lewin: Polish pioneer in social psychology (1890-1947) and the scientific study of group dynamics.

Ivan Pavlov: Russian psychologist (1849-1936) who explored the subconscious and conditioned behavior and won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1904.

B. F. Skinner: American behavioral psychologist (1904-1990) who invented methods for analyzing behavior under controlled, laboratory conditions.

John B. Watson: American psychologist (1878-1958) and behaviorist who influenced Skinner.

Evolutionary Psychology FAQ: An overview of evolutionary psychology, which focuses on the role of evolution and complex systems such as the nerves and brain in producing psychological phenomena.

Personality Psychology: An introduction to the field of personality psychology, a concentration that focuses on the main aspects of an individual’s psychological life and being, the identifiable “personality.”

Psychotherapy: Psychotherapeutic practices of four great psychologists compared; psychotherapy is a form of personal counseling that uses communication between patient and therapist to diagnose and work through psychological problems.

Social Psychology: An introduction to social psychology, a subfield of psychology that focuses on how mental structures like beliefs, identities, and perceptions are affected by social systems like the family and society.


The idea of evolution helped to make sociology and psychology what they are today. For sociologists, the idea that life is in a continuous process of growth and change made it possible to see society as something that could be understood and made better. For their part, psychologists became better able to understand what goes on in the human mind. Evolution continues to spur developments in neurology, pharmacology, and other sciences that help make sociology and psychology produce insights into human nature.

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