What is evolutionary social theory?

With summer now officially here, I have been able to turn my attention towards beginning my book project on evolutionary social theory. I now have a draft of about one third or so of my first chapter.  The actual draft is a bit longer. I’ve taken out some of the more extensive background discussion of the issues and marked their absence by …. I did this in part to make this entry a bit shorter and also to draw attention to the main thread of the the argument.  I’ve left out references or links at this point in time. Obviously, subsequent drafts will incorporate references.


Chapter One: What is evolutionary social theory?

What makes a theory in the social sciences evolutionary?

When Thorstein Veblen (1898) wrote his classic essay “Why is economics not an evolutionary science?”, his critique of the Neo-Classical economics of his day, drew on an extensive corpus of theory in Sociology and Anthropology. Veblen was arguing that Economics, far from being the star of the emerging social sciences, was significantly behind the times with respect to prevailing scientific practice that had become commonplace since the publication of The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man….

By the mid 20th century however, there was a turn back to efforts to place contemporary society in a broader evolutionary context, absent the ethnocentric bias of much of late 19th century evolutionary theory. This raised an important issue as to what degree, if any, concepts drawn from evolutionary biology could be transferred to the study of social evolution….

Consequently, in so far as one seeks to model evolutionary theory in the social sciences on evolutionary biology, it is not necessarily clear what this might mean. It is possible to identify several different approaches to the relationship between the two. Below, I propose a categorization of views, which is intended only as a very rough guide with which to frame initial discussion of what may, or may not be meant by evolutionary social theory:

  1. Strong cultural emergence: The rejection of any role for biology whatsoever in the study of social evolution and a general suspicion of the use of any strong biological analogies between biological and social evolution. Among biologists, Gould and Lewontin can be identified with this approach. Generally, this viewpoint has been associated within variants of Marxism, though it has also had adherents among Veblenians. Theorists in this trend have often rejected not only genetically based explanations for human behavior, but also the role of ecological variables as significant, explanatory factors in cultural variation and evolution. This still leaves the relative role assigned to changes in technology as opposed to changes in the social structure as substantive points of debate. At the extreme, these approaches are strongly agency and conflict driven;
  2. Weak cultural emergence: The use of ideas drawn loosely from evolutionary biology as a means of making rough analogies between biological and social evolution. Such analogies were often viewed as weak with an emphasis on the ways in which patterns of cultural evolution differed from patterns of biological evolution and in which the break between culture and nature was viewed as a qualitative break. For the most part, theorists in this trend rejected any strong biologically based explanations for human behavior, choosing instead to focus on culture as an emergent phenomenon sui generis that creates its own rules. Though biological evolution provides the basis for cultural evolution, cultural evolution is seen as a process that is distinctive from biological evolution. Multiple theorists in this tendency did however acknowledge and integrate the role of ecological variables as one, among multiple, explanatory factors for variations in cultural adaptation and evolution, though here again, there is an acknowledgement of the role of agency and conflict in social evolution.;
  3. Generalized Darwinism: More recently, there has been a revival of interest in evolutionary theory in economics which views social evolution as a special case of evolution in general. The view that a theory is evolutionary in the social sciences if it incorporates the core Darwinian ideas of variable inheritance and adaptive selection, has gained some significant support. Hodgson, for example, a contemporary champion of Veblen, has argued that evolution is a general ontological principle that applies to any entity that exhibits the properties described above. Notably, Hodgson agrees that the mechanism of inheritance in social institutions does not necessarily follow Mendelian rules and that culture is an emergent phenomenon. Though Hodgson has voiced criticisms of structure agency theory and of critical realism, there is some overlap between Hodgson’s Generalized Darwinism and the revival of Critical Realism. But this does not mean that the core Darwinian ideas are inapplicable to the study of social evolution. Therefore, the analogy, in a strong sense, remains valid. The task of social theory therefore, is to apply these principles to specific institutional and historical context.

Hodgson’s view of evolutionary economics as “generalized Darwinism” has also gained some support as well among Neo-Schumpeterians and evolutionary game theorists. More recently, some have proposed that analogies drawn from “Evo-Devo” can be fruitfully applied to the study of social change. In fairness to Hodgson, I do not interpret him as attempting to offer a demarcation criterion for distinguishing between an “evolutionary” as opposed to a “non-evolutionary” theory. Rather, I take Hodgson’s point to be that he is offering an approach to the study of social change that is more likely than others to be fruitful.

  1. Gene-culture co-evolution: The rise of Socio-biology and Evolutionary Psychology as established research programs in which hereditable genetic factors are assigned a strong role in explaining general patterns of the evolution of human behavior. Notably, theorists in this camp are often accused, among other significant alleged sins, of being genetic determinists. Theorists in this camp however argue that they are “interactionists”. That noted, there seems to be two groups of people who object to placing the study of the evolution of the human brain clearly within the context of the natural world: those who fear that this will lead people to vote for legal abortions, same sex marriage, more social programs and at the extreme to support for Marxism, and those who fear that it won’t.

The issue is complex and depends on which particular researcher or strand within the above disciplines one is referencing, and in how one interprets the argument that is put forth. That noted, in so far as one accepts the premise that the human brain is a product of natural selection, the complexity of the human brain does not place humans outside the natural world. Though the evolution of the human brain and human cognition are clearly relevant to the study of human societies, the connection between the study of Socio-Biology and Evolutionary Psychology to the study of changes in social organization, at least for roughly the last 30,000 years or so is at best weak. Analysis of social change should consequently assign primacy to the factors that produce change social institutions. Furthermore, all the evidence regarding human beings, is that in spite of significant phenotypic diversity, there is one single, human species that cannot be divided into distinctive racial groups. There is no basis for biologizing social inequality.

There are ways in which approaches 2,3 and 4 can be reconciled, and there are ways in which they cannot be, whereas approach #1 stands apart. With a few exceptions, I not address adherents to #4 in any significant detail in this study. My goal thus far has not been to offer an appraisal of the above approaches, but rather to draw out what might and might not be meant by the term evolutionary social theory or evolutionary political economy. At this point in time, it is possible to outline some general characteristics of what the task of an evolutionary approach to the social sciences should be.

An evolutionary theory can be distinguished from the study of static or functional analysis of a social system, but should be able to inform our understanding of, and be consistent with, such analysis. It should be more than an analysis of an unfolding of development or simply of increasing complexity along a linear, pre-determined path.  An evolutionary theory should be able to address the issue of change at multiple levels: at the level of changes in organizational routines of an existing system; at the level of changes in broader patterns of a specific system; at the level of the transformation of one form of social and economic organization into another; and the interaction of different forms of social and economic organization at the local, regional and global levels. Moreover, it should address the interaction of multiple components of a form of social and economic organization. It should be able to address the issues of conflict, structure and agency.  Finally, though inquiry for the sake of idle curiousity is in my view defensible, social evolutionary theory should be capable of shedding some light on the exercise of public policy. Though it cannot be divorced from ethical or normative concerns, it is also not reducible to an ethical or ideological stance.

Having set out some general concepts for what makes a theory evolutionary, I will turn my attention in the remainder of this chapter to two complex issues: the issue of social Darwinism; and what it may, or may not mean, to argue that evolutionary social theory is, or at least is in principle capable of being, scientific.

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