The term ‘evolution‘ comes from the Latin word ‘evoluere’ which means ‘to develop’ or to ‘unfold’. It closely corresponds to the Sanskrit word ‘Vikas’. Evolution literally means gradually ‘unfolding’ or ‘unrolling’.
It indicates changes from ‘within’ and not from without’; it is spontaneous, but not automatic. It must take place on its own accord. It implies continuous change that takes place especially in some structure. The concept of evolution applies more precisely to the internal growth of an organism.
Meaning of Social Evolution:
The term ‘evolution’ is borrowed from biological science to sociology. The term ‘organic evolution’ is replaced by ‘Social Evolution’ in sociology. Whereas the term ‘organic evolution’ is used to denote the evolution of organism, the expression ‘social evolution’ is used to explain the evolution of human society.
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Here the term implies the evolution of man’s social relations. It was hoped that the theory of social evaluation would explain the origin and development of man. Anthropologists and sociologists wanted to find a satisfactory and significant explanation of how our society evolved.
They wanted an explanation in this regard rather than a description. They were impressed by the idea of organic evolution which could convincingly explain how one species evolves into another, and wanted to apply the same to the social world. Hence the concept of social evolution is quite popular in sociological discussion.
The Concept of Social Evolution:
Our explanation of the concept of social evolution revolves round two questions: (i) How does society evolve? (ii) How did our civilisation come to be what it is today?
The common assumption is that society evolved because of man, who made society evolved. Accordingly, men who had not evolved too far would have a crude culture while men who are more evolved would have an advanced society.
Society is understood here in terms of social behaviour, and behaviour is a function of biological structure. Men with superior and mote evolved biological structure, thus, could give rise to a more complex society.
When we consider the factors that explain social evolution we are confronted with another question, i.e., “what is that evolving in the social world?”. The answer is usually ‘society’. As far as society is concerned, something other than the biological element in it is undergoing the change. To the anthropologists like R.H. Lowie and A. Kroeber and others that element is ‘culture’.
Social evolution then becomes ‘cultural evolution’ and evolution of groups from times immemorial becomes a part of the evolution of culture. “What then are the factors that have caused the great evolution of our culture from crude and simple beginnings to the magnificence, it has now attained?” The answer lies in four factors: accumulation, invention, diffusion, and adjustment. Use of This Concept to Understand Social Change
The concept of social evolution is highly useful in explaining the changes in and growth of society for the following reasons:
1. The nature of any system can be better understood if we look at it as it “unfolds” itself. Evolution is a principle of internal growth. It shows not merely what happens to a thing but also what happens within it. What is latent becomes manifest in it, and what is potential is made actual. The concept thus helps us to know what actually happens within the society in its structure, that is, in the social roles, positions and relations of people.
“2. The evolutionary clue helps us to arrange a multitude of facts in a significant order that is; in accordance with time succession giving them the coherence of successive stages.
Example: It helps us to explain how the functions of modern family in course of time, have become more limited to those that arise out of their foundations in sex. Such an explanation may reveal a significant time succession.
3. The evolutionary principle provides a simple means of classifying and characterising the most diverse social systems. Societies could be classified on the basis of their degree and mode of differentiation as revealed by customs, creeds, techniques devices, thoughts, etc.
4. Finally, the evolutionary clue helps us to know the direction of change. The direction of change is always the result of some persistent forces that are at work. If the forces at work are known through them, the direction can be ascertained.