Saturday, July 2, 2011

Why does everyone insist that social evolution ceased circa 1950?

In the comments section on a post concerning Norway's consciously gender-neutral schooling, Jaybird has this to say:

Here is my problem with the phrase “social construct”.

It tends to be used as if social constructs are things that can be casually shrugged off, as if they were hobbies that were likely to be grown out of.

It seems to me far more likely that social constructs evolve over time because they are *USEFUL* for society and societies with less useful social constructs don’t keep up if, in fact, they don’t die out.

Which is not to say that Social Constructs are how God wants us to act… but the attitude that such-and-such is just a social construct seems to dismiss a *LOT* of things that evolved over time. Certainly when the underlying attitude seems to be akin to “God wants us to cast off our Social Constructs!”

My response:

Useful for whom?

Useful for when?

I submit that the more egalitarian gender ethos that has come to characterize modern western society is not exogenous to the natural evolution of gender roles that produced the previous dichotomy, but a production of the same process, though modified by a few factors. The first is the moral improvement of mankind that stopped taking the benefit of the male sex as the only barometer of social weal. The second is economic advance that simply made keeping half of the population in menial labor infeasible.

In brief, why is this change not part of that natural evolution?

I have never been a huge fan of the arument Jaybird announces here- why should we assume that the social evolution is necessarily beneficent? I'm sure some social structures really did evolve because they were the best solution to certain social problems, but their mere existence does not prove this fact. Social structures arise as a result of a complicated interaction of individual actions motivated by incentives, ideology, and psychology. It seems entirely plausible to me that certain structures evolved because it was in the interest of one class- in other words, in order to preserve privilege, as seems to be the case with the gender construction in question. Or that social structures could evolve out of mere ignorance- as the stigma against homosexuality seems to have been created by. Social structures are only produced by the diffuse actions of individuals, after all, and fallible individuals do not become perfect by the force of collective action and historical laws.

But even eliding the clear deficiencies of this argument, it fails on its own merits, at least as applied to this situation. If the previous dispensation was created by social evolution teleologically designed for our benefit, why is the coming one a malignant interloper? In short, why is it that every change that has happened before in gender roles is a historically-guided change for the good, but today's change lies outside that process?

Why did social evolution cease in 1950?