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The Michael Shermer Show

A series of conversations between Dr. Michael Shermer and leading scientists, philosophers, historians, scholars, writers and thinkers about the most important issues of our time.

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EPISODE # 286

Kevin McCaffree — How Societies Change and Why 

Cultural Evolution (book cover) Dance of Innovation (book cover)

Since the dawn of social science, theorists have debated how and why societies appear to change, develop and evolve. Today, this question is pursued by scholars across many different disciplines and our understanding of these dynamics has grown markedly. Yet, there remain important areas of disagreement and debate: what is the difference between societal change, development and evolution? What specific aspects of cultures change, develop or evolve and why? Do societies change, develop or evolve in particular ways, perhaps according to cycles, or stages or in response to survival necessities? How do different disciplines — from sociology to anthropology to psychology and economics — approach these questions? After 10,000 years of history, what does the future hold for culture and society?

Dr. Kevin McCaffree is a professor of sociology at the University of North Texas. He is the author or co-author of five books, co-editor of Theoretical Sociology: The Future of a Disciplinary Foundation and series co-editor (with Jonathan H. Turner) of Evolutionary Analysis in the Social Sciences. In addition to these works, he has authored or co-authored numerous peer-reviewed journal articles and handbook chapters on a variety of topics ranging from cultural evolution to criminology to the sociology of empathy. His two books include Cultural Evolution: The Empirical and Theoretical Landscape, and The Dance of Innovation: Infrastructure, Social Oscillation, and the Evolution of Societies. Along with Anondah Saide, he is one of the two chief researchers for the Skeptic Research Center, and Michael Shermer had the honor of serving on his dissertation committee for his Ph.D. thesis on the rise of the Nones — those who hold no religious affiliation.

Shermer and McCaffree discuss:

  • McCaffree’s experience being trained as a cop, his research on crime, and his thoughts on the recent spike in crime and violence
  • Is there any way to solve the problem of gun violence?
  • how sociologists think about human and social action
  • how sociology went woke and how that has changed the study of society and culture
  • What is diversity, equity, and inclusion?
  • Is the current political polarization really worse than it’s been?
  • cultural evolution vs. biological evolution — nature/nurture?
  • humans as apes
  • what life was like for early humans (Otzi, Lucy)
  • from bands and tribes to chiefdoms and states
  • Were ancient human tribes egalitarian?
  • horizontal/equalitarian vs. vertical/hierarchical societies
  • human selfishness and the problem of altruism — why are we nice to others?
  • between-group and within-group competition and cooperation
  • fission-fusion in primate bands — from chimps to humans
  • infrastructure and institutions
  • Oscillation-Infrastructural Theory of Cultural Evolution
  • what the future holds for humanity and society.

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This episode was released on July 9, 2022.

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