Looking at Lenski


Work by sociologist Gerhard Lenski is a key building block in Ellis’ article. Ellis has Lenski in mind when he notes that “Evolutionary theorists and social scientists have made substantial progress toward explaining the exceptional growth of human societies and their unprecedented capacity for environmental transformations” (p. 288).

It bears noting, however, that Lenski starts out with a different question than does Ellis. Lenski asks, how do human societies come to have social inequality in the first place, how do they maintain it, and how does it change? (Note that human social organization as depends on the size of the society.) But in order to shed light on Ellis’ article I will put more emphasis on social development than inequality.

In Lenski’s model (1966, see also Nolan and Lenski 2010) technology and the natural environment are two major factors that play a key role in societal development. Of those two, Lenski views technology as having the most critical importance.  More specifically, it is the type of societal production, or subsistence technology (as opposed to leading edge technology) which Lenski sees as the chief factor constraining society’s ability to extract and use natural resources—or as Ellis might put it, to engage in niche construction.

Lenski classifies societies by the subsistence technology available to the most advanced portion of that society.  While he identifies ten different types of societies (as well as hybrids among some of these ten types), the most important, in the order they evolve are 1) hunting and gathering societies, 2) horticultural societies, 3) agrarian societies, and 4) industrial societies.

The smallest and least differentiated of the societal types are hunting and gathering societies.  Utilizing historical evidence, Lenski concludes that the median size of hunting and gathering societies has been about 40 people, the members of which are typically comprised of extended families or clans.  As a rule, these societies are nomadic, and their use of technology is limited to fulfilling basic necessities.  There is little division of labor, and only rudimentary trading of goods.

The horticultural society evolves with the advent of simple tools to till the soil, which give people the capacity to plant and harvest crops.  In so doing, members of a horticultural society can develop more permanent shelter and protection from the environment. As it begins to develop techniques of land usage, a horticultural society is able to generate more food than a hunting and gathering society can. It can therefore sustain a larger population, up to about 5,000.  The labor-intensive work in a horticultural society is often more time-consuming than hunting and gathering. However, the fruits of such labor are more dependable, allowing for a surplus of food. This allows horticultural societies to ride out times of lower productivity better than hunter/gatherers.

Next, the agrarian stage arises with the advent of more sophisticated tools for the tilling of soil, such as the plow, along with the domestication of animals.  Agrarian societies thus deploy technology to use the natural environment more effectively than ever before, yielding surpluses of food and luxury goods.  These advances allow the size of the society to increase massively, to populations in the hundreds of thousands.

This population increase can lead to greater societal complexity. In agrarian societies we see  occupations other than agriculture, such as metalworking, building, or weaving. We also witness the rise of classes of priests, politicians, warriors, and nobles. Also during this phase, we witness the possibility of social conflicts over control of surplus goods.  In fact, as a society accumulates a surplus, it sets the stage for other societies to have a potential interest in invading it and plundering its resources as well.  As such, the society must defend itself from potential invaders. This scenario necessitates the rise of a warrior class. Lenski shows the potential for such stratification is greater in this technological stage than in any other.

The next phase in the evolution of societies, Lenski notes, is the industrial phase.  Here society develops and becomes heavily dependent on complex machinery and “inanimate” energy sources, such as coal, natural gas, oil, and nuclear fission. The use of heavy machinery as the basis of subsistence technology increases productive capacity exponentially, allowing industrial societies to sustain vastly larger populations than agrarian societies, up to the hundreds of millions or billions we see today. And this increasing population size, in turn, paves the way for even more complexity in the division of labor, which can be observed as an increase in occupational differentiation.

With the utilization of technologically advanced machinery comes the ability to extract and recombine natural resources more rapidly than ever before. While this is associated with tremendous productivity and escalating social exchanges, it is in the industrial phase that we see the greatest potential for environmental degradation (Schnaiberg 1980).  Indeed, the ecological marxist James O’Connor (1998) has pointed out that this overproduction in advanced capitalism will put tremendous strains on the natural resources of the planet, leading to what he characterizes as the “second contradiction of capitalism.”

And this happens at a global scale. As societies get larger and more complex they become increasingly more integrated into a complex “world system.” Ellis cites Chase-Dunn and Lerro (2013), who characterize the last 12,000 years in terms of spiraling globalization. We find ourselves in this stage of advanced globalization now, where we can say that human niche construction encompasses the entire planet. This puts the expansionary logic of the world system on a collision course with the adaptive cycles of ecological systems (Burns and Rudel 2015). Put succinctly, runaway human niche construction (Boyd and Richerson 1985), driven by the greed of people in power, aggregates over time to a plundered planet.

How can societies begin to unwind some of these deep contradictions? Ellis ends his article with a call for “a new paradigm of ‘societies sustaining an anthropogenic biosphere’” (p. 321). In my view, however, the best hope appears to be the rise of a cultural consciousness, with the natural environment as a central organizing principle (Schnaiberg 1980; Burns 2009).

Schnaiberg, Allan. 1980. The Environment: From Surplus to Scarcity. New York: Oxford University Press.

4 thoughts on “Looking at Lenski

  1. Thanks for the post, Tom, and welcome to the blog!

    I have two questions I wonder about. First, I was struck by how familiar the sequence Lenski identifies is–you can see it in accounts of human development going back to antiquity. There are hints in Plato, and certainly in Lucretius. And In the 18th century I’m familiar with versions in Rousseau and in Adam Smith–I’m sure there are many others. So what’s the basis of Lenski’s scheme? You mention that he uses historical evidence . . . what kind? To what extent is he getting his sequence from observation–or is he taking up the traditional schemes?

    Second, I wonder what you think about how Ellis makes use of Lenski’s scheme? It looks like he is drawing on the scheme in his account of “anthropological succession” (pp. 313 ff.) Thus, it seems like he thinks that there is a predictable pattern of ecological changes as societies follow the developmental path identified by Lenski. Does that broad predictive framework make sense, do you think?

    Looking forward to exploring these questions further!

  2. Zev, let us consider Lenski on his own terms for a moment here…his main concern is not to account for “anthropological succession,” but to present a model for how social stratification systems come about in societies of various sizes and stages of social complexity. In the brief discussion today, and in the blog, we focused on the aspects of the theory that Ellis uses. To respond to your question about Ellis’s use of the theory, it strikes me that he is really using more of the “ground” than the “figure.” If it seems like a familiar narrative to you, it is because the part of the overall theory that Ellis uses comes from a relatively narrow range of the overall story, and draws on work that others have told before.

    That said, however, I would caution that each of the examples of theorists you give are pre-Anthropocene. It is worth considering whether society reached some tipping point (and with a nod to the central question of our group, whether that tipping point is the entry into the Anthropocene Age–even if the date is elusive in pinning down precisely), after which there have been enough human incursions into the planet to constitute something fundamentally different from what came before that tipping point. If that is the case (and I think if we are to take our task in the group seriously, then we have to at least seriously consider the possibility), then we may need to look to theories and models that consider moving beyond the classics.

    Lenski attempts to do that, and he is at least partly successful. He assumes the reader has a familiarity with earlier functional and conflict oriented stratification theorists (particularly Durkheim and Marx, respectively), and the thrust of his work is toward a metatheoretical synthesis of these perspectives. The major contribution of Lenski’s work, in fact, is his attempt to bring theory and analysis into the late industrial age, bridging some of the lacunae in earlier work.

    Ellis does something that other researchers do, which is to use a part of the work he is citing, and not necessarily the main part and he is not at fault for doing that. At the same time though, it would be a mistake to judge Lenski based on that truncated reading. If you do find Lenski wanting after my presentation, feel free to blame the messenger, having only presented the part of his work that Ellis was using today in our brief meeting.

    It is good you raised these broader issues in your comment. I hope this clarifies.Thanks to you and to one and all for a lively exchange today!

    All the Best,


  3. Your essay is absolutely fascinating! I cannot help but wonder how we will see new patterns of societal succession come into fruition as the Anthropocene era applies pressure to the need for new technologies and human occupations. As more people inhabit the Earth, the social and ecological issues that come along with job specialization become more complicated, even before we can solve the problems of yesteryear. In the same way that the creation of a space for basket-weavers in agrarian society didn’t lessen the need for farmers (in fact the farmers were tasked as responsible for maintaining the lifestyles of more and more people), the need for factories has not been lessened by the Dickens-era workforce switching their soot covered sewing machines for a modern day cubicle.
    The inclusion of the word “plundered” near the end of your essay made me wonder what your thoughts are on how societal pressures will impel the creation of new classes of fighters. The quote, “driven by the greed of people in power, aggregates over time to a plundered planet” called back to your explanation of how the population increase obliged the creation of a “warrior class”. You leave me wondering if perhaps our consumption-inducing, smog-producing population of today needs a new warrior class to rise: a cohort of activists who, much like the soldiers of yore, are tasked with stopping the irresponsible from ransacking our resources.

  4. Thank you for your comment, Mary…you raise some interesting questions…

    It does appear that late modernity (aka the Anthropocene era) is characterized by a number of artifacts that, when taken together, mark humankind having passed a crucial tipping point in relation to the planet, some time subsequent to the Industrial Revolution, and maybe even more proximamally, say, since World War II. We have more people on the planet than at any time in history (over 7 biillion and counting), much of the technology we have created has arguably outrun the ability of the cultural mores to handle it (or, as Garrett Hardin points out in one of his essays on the tragedy of the commons…”Technology can create problems it cannot solve”), the concentrations of wealth and poverty are becoming more extreme over time. There are, of course, other things, but these three master variables of population, technology and affluence come together in a multitude of ways and collectively and interactively present a set of problems that humankind is, at best, only partially equipped to deal with at this juncture at the dawn of the Third Millennium.

    The cultural adaptations range from outright denial, to reframing problems to reassure ourselves that this is just another iteration of an age-old problem instead of something new (when in fact, perhaps the one analogy that should apply is “fiddling while Rome burns”), to, as you have alluded, the rise of a new warrior class. One of the artifacts of the age, is an elaborate division of labor that lacks an overarching culture to hold it together. In turn, people get caught in their own niches, tending to devalue others and doubling down on their own–economists see economic fixes (Structure selfish choices so they are “rational, support Cap and Trade!, etc.), politicians see political fixes (more laws!), and so forth.

    The French writer Victor Hugo recognized something important when he observed that there is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world…and that is the power of an idea whose time has come. From where I sit Hugo has a good lesson for those of us now, if we can shed the narcissism of the age long enough to tune in. For us, I believe the best hope lies in the rise of a new environmental consciousness, in which relationship with, and stewardship for, the natural environment, becomes a central organizing principle of the culture itself. We are in a time that is qualitatively different from the past in so many dimiensions, that it is difficult to know what cultural codes to follow, and what bears reworking. And yet I do think that is the task of citizens and (dare I use the word?) intellectuals in the new millennium. There is much at stake.

    Some Suggestions for Further Reading:

    Burns, Thomas J. Culture and the Natural Environment. 2009. In Alpina Begossi and Priscila F. Lopes (eds.), Current Trends in Human Ecology, pp. 56-72. Newcastle upon Tyne, U.K.: Cambridge Scholars Press.

    Hornborg, Alf. 2007. Rethinking Environmental History: World-System History and Global Environmental Change. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

    McNeill, J.R. 2001. Something New Under the Sun: An Envrionmental History of the Twentieth Century. New York: Norton.

    Moore, Jason W. 2015. Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital. London: Verso.

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