Evolutionary Social Theory: Progress

After a significant amount of additional research and some initial difficulties in actually getting my thoughts down on paper, my book project, Evolutionary Social Theory is now well underway, with two draft chapters essentially complete. I have an official contract with Routledge and I’m working on a two year timeline with a goal of approximately 200 pages and eight chapters altogether. I now have two nearly complete chapters and a rough outline of the third, which will complete Part I of the book. Below, I give a summary of where the project is heading now and provide some detail on the first two chapters.

I’ve rethought the project significantly from how I first envisioned it. When I first began the project I had conceived of the structure of the book as a comparison of three paradigms in economics, Marxist, Original Institutionalist and New Institutionalist. Over the years, I’ve become less enamored with the approaches of Kuhn and Lakatos, and consequently with paradigm and research program comparisons and more convinced that evolutionary economics should not be separated from a broader evolutionary approach to social theory in general. I’ve reoriented the project in two ways:

  1. by addressing the literature on social evolution outside of economics;
  2. by tying evolutionary theory, broadly defined to evaluation of empirical issues.

Accordingly, the study will have two parts . In part I I am addressing the philosophical issues that arise with the study of evolutionary social theory and in part II I want to address the empirical issues. The issue that motivated me in Part I is the broad issue of what exactly does it mean to have an evolutionary social theory and in what sense can that theory be said to be “scientific”. In Part II I’m addressing the issue of transitions from one kind of social system to another, specifically, the origins and evolution of Capitalism, the rise of “actually existing socialism” , the transition from “actually existing socialism to Capitalism” and the possibilities of a genuinely, democratic and humanistic alternative to Capitalism.

Initially, I anticipated starting Chapter One with Darwin and the late 19th century Social Evolutionists, including, but certainly not limited to, Thorstein Veblen’s contributions. I was curious though about where the idea of social evolution, broadly defined, began. The well known and somewhat controversial anthropologist Marvin Harris traced it back to the Marquis de Condorcet, in his history of anthropology: RAT. Condorcet is important for multiple reasons and he is probably the first to attempt a truly comprehensive theory of social evolution. But as I traced the steps back however I realized that many of the ideas about social evolution began with various writers in the Scottish and French Enlightenment, including Voltaire, who sought to understand the origins of the state and commercial society as a result of a step by step historical process. Interestingly, much of the social theory coming out of the Enlightenment was consciously envisioned as a kind of Social Newtonism. Yet there’s a division between those who wrote about social organization as a result of an historical process and the social contract theorists who approached the issue in an abstract and a historical approach. So as it turns out, Chapter One, which addresses the roots of evolutionary social theory, starts with the Enlightenment and Social Newtonism. My argument is that those who took the historical approach, were in actuality, the better Social Newtonists.

In Chapter Two, I’m addressing the 19th century Social Evolutionists, both prior to and after Darwin, and of course, including an extensive discussion of Darwin himself. The 19th century Social Evolutionists in general get a bad rap, some of which is deserved, especially given the way Compte, Spencer and Sumner placed civilizations in a heirarchical order with Europeans at the top. Veblen, for the most part, avoided, or at least he was aware of the problem and tried to avoid it and was sharply critical of any kind of invidious distinction. Yet there’s a lot more to 19th century evolutionary social theory, including of course writers as diverse as ideologically diverse as Henry Lewis Morgan, Edward Tylor, Lester Frank Ward, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the American Pragmatists, Marx and Engels and also, Weber and Durkheim. I would add that I think there’s a case to be made that W.E.B. Dubois as well should be placed in the category of social evolutionists, though I think of him more as a 20th century theorist. I realized however that it would be impossible to address all these theorists in detail so instead I’ve focused on how evolutionary social theory and evolutionary biological theory influenced each other, sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worse. I’ve also discussed how and why John Stuart Mill and Alfred Marshall separated political economy from the other social sciences and pushed economics away from the study of dynamics and into the study of statics. What lessons do we learn from this? One important lesson is be very careful about whether, and if so how, you generalize from biology to the social sciences and also about how you generalize back into biology from the social sciences. The two are not neatly separable but they are distinctive processes. But the other is equally important: explanation of existing patterns of social organization require an understanding of how social organization emerges and changes over time.

In Chapter Three, I’m going to discuss the Philosophy of Science issues in relation to the 20th century and extend this discussion to the revival of evolutionary social theory across the social sciences. In economics right now, I think there is a kind of orthodox heterodoxy on this issue (if I may be permitted the use of a paradoxical description) of evolutionary economics as generalized Darwinism with Critical Realist meta theoretical foundations. I’m arguing for an alternative based more broadly across the social science literature centered in Sociology and Anthropology of neo-evolutionism and grounded in meta theoretical foundations based in Pragmatism.

Chapter Four will address the issues related to the origins of Capitalism. Chapter Five analyses the evolution of Capitalism and the rise of Socialism. Chapter Six takes up the problems of “actually existing socialism” while Chapter Seven revisits the issue of Capitalism. Chapter Eight of course will attempt to wrap this all up.

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