Introduction to Evolutionary Social Theory

This is the current Introduction to my book, Evolutionary Social Theory which I anticipate will be forthcoming with Routledge within the next year. I anticipate having a completed draft of the study in approximately 3 months. As you may note reading back over this blog, there have been substantial modifications in the scope of this study. At this point, I envision the scope and topics to be fixed though there will no doubt be edits and clarifications.

What is Evolution?

In the popular imagination, the term evolution is often associated with the transformation of apes to humans. If we define the term with respect to its roots, it means a continuous “rolling out” of a process of change.  In contemporary biology however, the term “evolution” has a precise and fixed definition: a change in the frequency of alleles in a population, which in turn leads to changes in the phenotype of the species. This process ultimately leads to speciation and substantive change in the form of the species, such as the rise of the various hominini and ultimately modern Homo Sapiens Sapiens, out of an ancestral population which humans share with other species of the genus Pan (Chimps). In this sense, both “micro” and “macro” evolution are theorized as part of the same step by step process of continuous variation and selection. This definition of evolution also implies a distinction between “development” and “evolution.” Yet in the 19th century the term was generally used to refer to major morphological changes in a species as observed in the fossil record, or in other words, “transmogrification” and was not always distinguished from development. This less rigorous definition of the term “evolution” was also the term that was generally used to describe changes in the form of social organization over time.

But the idea that social organization could change over time pre-dated the use of the term evolution, as did the idea of biological evolution. The notion that the form of social structures could change can be traced back at least to the Old Testament as well as to Plato and Aristotle. Though Aristotle held to the fixity of species, there are hints at a theory of biological evolution in the writings of other Greek philosophers. Similarly, in contrast to the Old Testament, similar ideas are suggested in the origin stories of other cultures, such as that of the Dine (Navajo). The Islamic scholar Ibn Khaldun, writing in the medieval era, addressed the concept of changes in social organization as well and his writings likely had a direct or indirect influence on the European Renaissance and Enlightenment. Throughout the 18th century, multiple figures in the European Enlightenment conceived of social theory as a scientific study of the process of social change. In this endeavor they made extensive use of the historical and comparative method and tied changes in the form of social organization to changes in technology. Similarly, the naturalism of the Enlightenment laid the ground for the rise of evolutionary theory in biology by the turn of the 19th century. In the 19th century, evolutionary theory spread rapidly in both biology and the social sciences prior to the publications of Darwin and Wallace on biological evolution. In the latter half of the 19th century evolutionary theory in both the biological and social sciences became the dominant approach. While evolutionary ideas gained steam in biology in the early 20th century and triumphed in biology, the idea that social theory could and should be an evolutionary science fell out of favor in the early 20th century. In the latter half of the 20th century it enjoyed a significant revival which has continued into the 21st century..

Two Questions

This raises two interesting questions?:

  1. What does it mean to say that social theory is, or should be an “evolutionary science”?
  2. Why did the idea that social theory could and should be an “evolutionary science” become the dominant approach to social theory, only to fall into disfavor and then be resurrected in the late 20th century?

Veblen and the Evolutionary Method in the Social Sciences

The first question can be answered provisionally with relative ease though it will require more refinement and definition over the course of this study. Writing in the late 19th century, the economist Thorstein Veblen, criticized mainstream economists of his day, as well as others in the social sciences, for failing to fully adopt the evolutionary method provided.  As Veblen noted:

“The Economists have accepted the hedonistic conceptions concerning human nature and human action, and the conception of the economic interest which a hedonistic psychology gives, does not afford material for a theory of the development of human nature. Under hedonism, the economic interest is not conceived in terms of action. It is therefore not readily apprehended or appreciated in terms of a growth of habits of thought, and does not provoke, even if it did lend itself to, treatment by the evolutionary method.” (p. 78).

According to Veblen, the Neo-Classical Economics of his day took economizing behavior and market organization for granted and as invariant psychological principles and analyzed these features as isolated from the rest of the social structure. Consequently, Veblen argued, it could not account for institutional change. Thus, far from being the star of the emerging social sciences, Neo-Classical Economics rested on an antiquated view of science and was significantly behind the times. Veblen was similarly critical of approaches in Sociology and Anthropology that emphasized static structural-functional analysis of social institutions. Yet he was also critical of the Marxist dialectical framework and contrasted Marx’s use of dialectics with the Darwinian method. In Veblen’s view the evolutionary method was neither taxonomic nor did it assume the natural tendency of prices to tend towards an inherent value. This tells us what the evolutionary method is not.

Later in that essay Veblen defines what the evolutionary method is. Veblen viewed institutions as an outcome of an unbroken historical process of cause and effect and in a constant process of adapting to changing circumstances. In Veblen’s view, the task of economics, and of all the social sciences was to explain how social institutions emerged, persisted, or changed as a consequence of human action and how human action was constrained and shaped by social institutions. Veblen’s framework was also materialist. He emphasized the importance of changes in the process of material provisioning as central to the process of social evolution and placed technological change at the center of that process while addressing how ideas influenced or inhibited technological innovation.

In “The Evolution of the Scientific Point of View” he provides a longer and more illuminating discussion of the evolutionary point of view which is worth quoting at length.

“The sciences which are in any peculiar sense modern take as an (unavowed) postulate the fact of consecutive change. Their inquiry always centers upon some manner of process. This notion of process about which the researches of modern science cluster, is a notion of a sequence, or complex, of consecutive change in which the nexus of the sequence, that by virtue of which the change inquired into is consecutive, is the relation of cause and effect. The consecution, moreover, runs in terms of persistence of quantity or of force. In so far as the science is of a modern complexion, in so far as it is not of the nature of taxonomy simply, the inquiry converges upon a matter of process; and it comes to rest, provisionally, when it has disposed of its facts in terms of process. But modern scientific inquiry in any case comes to rest only provisionally; because its prime postulate is that of consecutive change, and consecutive change can, of course, not come to rest except provisionally. By its own nature the inquiry cannot reach a final term in any direction. So it is something of a homiletical commonplace to say that the outcome of any serious research can only be to make two questions grow where one question grew before. Such is necessarily the case because the postulate of the scientist is that things change consecutively. It is an unproven and unprovable postulate—that is to say, it is a metaphysical preconception—but it gives the outcome that every goal of research is necessarily a point of departure; every term is transitional.

A hundred years ago, or even fifty years ago, scientific men were not in the habit of looking at the matter in this way. At least it did not then seem a matter of course, lying in the nature of things, that scientific inquiry could not reach a final term in any direction. To-day it is a matter of course, and will be so avowed without argument. Stated in the broadest terms, this is the substantial outcome of that nineteenth-century movement in science with which the name of Darwin is associated as a catch-word.

This use of Darwin’s name does not imply that this epoch of science is mainly Darwin’s work. What merit may belong to Darwin, specifically, in these premises, is a question which need not detain the argument. He may, by way of creative initiative, have had more or less to do with shaping the course of things scientific. Or, if you choose, his voice may even be taken as only one of the noises which the wheels of civilisation make when they go round. But by scientifically colloquial usage we have come to speak of pre-Darwinian and post-Darwinian science, and to appreciate that there is a significant difference in the point of view between the scientific era which preceded and that which followed the epoch to which his name belongs.” (pp. 33-36).

Today, Veblen is most often viewed as an economist, and specifically, as the founder of the Original Institutionalist Economics (OIE) school. He is also a significant influence in the revival of contemporary evolutionary economics (Hodgson 2004). But like Marx, and multiple other theorists, Veblen’s contributions cut across disciplinary boundaries. When Veblen wrote the above cited essays, the lines between the several disciplines in the social sciences had not yet hardened and the following propositions were prevalent across all the emerging social sciences.

  1. Social and economic organization changes over time;
  2. The organization of society in the 19th century was distinctive enough in comparison to other historical periods that it stood in need of explanation;
  3. The study of the system of production and distribution (the economy) could not be undertaken without an understanding of how this system interacted with the rest of society.

Despite Veblen’s view that the triumph of the evolutionary method was inevitable the evolutionary method fell out of favor, not just in economics, but in all the social sciences in the following decades. In addition, the dividing lines between the social sciences came to be rigidly defined.

In the late 20th century however, evolutionary theorizing enjoyed a revival across the social sciences, including in economics. Though there are multiple strands of evolutionary economics, one in particular has become widely influential: the approach advocated by Geoffrey Hodgson (2004; 2008). Hodgson’s approach incorporates aspects of Critical Realism (Collier 1994; Lawson 1997; 2003; 2021) and Structure Agency Theory (Archer 1995; 1996) and envisions Evolutionary Economics as “Generalized Darwinism”. Hodgson posits variation and selection as general ontological principles that apply to both the natural and social sciences. Not surprisingly, a substantial part of the literature in evolutionary economics has focused on applying Darwinian analogies specifically to economic problems, such as the nature of the firm, or sought to capture evolutionary dynamics in the context of game theory. This literature has yielded useful insights into these problems but for the most part it has not systematically engaged with the broader contributions to evolutionary social theory in other disciplines. A related problem is that it is often focused on institutional change within a given social system, primarily that of capitalist economies, rather than transitions from one social system to another.

In this study I argue for a path that is distinctive in relation to Hodgson’s formulation. While acknowledging the usefulness and applicability of Darwinian analogies based on variation and selection for understanding social evolution, I argue that such analogies face real limits in terms of their applicability to social sciences. In contrast I argue that evolutionary economics should be placed in the broader context of Evolutionary Social Theory across the social sciences. The path I propose is scientific, materialist, interdisciplinary and evolutionary and built on the foundations of Critical Common Sensism (Haack 2009), or in other words “Neo-Classical Pragmatism”. This shift retains Veblen as an important contributor to evolutionary social theory, but not necessarily as the key figure to reviving evolutionary social theory.

The kind of broad synthesis I propose for the social sciences is not original to me. It has multiple precedents and parallels. It is not a uniform paradigm or research program but is comprised of a loose confederation of related strands across multiple disciplines and incorporates differing ideological perspectives. One strand descends with modification from the contributions of Childe, White and Seward and is found in the respective contributions of Eric Wolf (1997) and Marvin Harris (1977) in Anthropology. In Economics, in addition to Hodgson’s contribution, there is a long tradition of overlap between Veblenian and Polanyian strands and Marxian Economics (Dugger and Sherman 2000; Sherman 2006) and between the Substantivist school in Anthropology and the Polanyian school in Economics. In Sociology, Frank Elwell (2009; 2016) has made closely related arguments and drawn a connection between Classical Sociological Theory, the work of C. Wright Mills ( 1959 ) Marvin Harris (1977), Nolan and Lenski (2004), Immanuel Wallerstein (1974). In Political Science, theorists such as Susan Strange (2015), Robert Gilpin (2001) and Ronald Chilcote (2000; 2018) pioneered the study of International Political Economy and Comparative Politics as a discipline that crossed disciplinary boundaries in seeking to explain globalization as the outcome of an historical process.

There are many multiple labels which can and have been put on this general approach such as Cultural Materialism, Macro Sociology or Evolutionary Political Economy. For the purposes of this study, I have chosen to use the term “Evolutionary Social Theory” as it incorporates contributions from a broad range of social sciences, including, but not limited to, the contributions of Veblen and related theorists in economics.  Given all the above, the reader might fairly ask “why use the term “evolution” at all when discussing social change? Aren’t I simply advocating the interdisciplinary and comparative study of historical social change? Absolutely. Though, as noted above, in my view, Darwinian analogies in the social sciences have limits, when used with care, they can help to shed light on multiple complex issues. In biology, change takes place step by step within a species and this same process of change can lead to the emergence of a new species. Similarly, in social evolution change takes place step by step within a system and ultimately leads to the emergence of a new system. Furthermore, biological and social systems interact. In sum, there is much that social scientists can learn from biology. Again however, I stress the importance of the concept of cultural emergence and the importance of understanding social problems in the context of social theory. In spite thse cautions I think that the term “evolutionary social theory” is less awkward than “the interdisciplinary study of the process of historical change at multiple levels” and I can see no reason why we should shrink from the use of the word “evolution” provided we keep the proper caveats in mind. Nor need the term “evolution” preclude the study of revolution, as revolutions have deep historical and structural roots and do not immediately sweep away the detritus of the past and deeply rooted social habits often resurface.

Definition of Evolutionary Social Theory

In this study I will use the following criterion of what I take to be the minimal requirement of an evolutionary approach to social theory: Evolutionary Social Theory is the study of the process of social change as a step by step process of cumulative change, both within a given socio-cultural system and from one kind of socio-cultural system to another. It is scientific, in that it seeks explanation in terms of cause and effect and seeks validation for that explanation via process of good faith empirical inquiry. It is materialist in that it places the process of social provisioning at the center of the analysis. Materialism, in this sense, does not preclude or avoid analysis of the role of ideas and acknowledges the possibility of feedback effects. It directly addresses the importance of conscious, purposive agents. It is a form of open systems analysis and eschews teleological explanations.

Arguments of This Study: Six Theses

In addressing the second question, I will trace the rise, fall and resurrection of evolutionary social theory across three centuries. In doing so, I propose the following theses:

  1. Evolutionary Social Theory arose during the Enlightenment as an effort to explain the process of social change and was a direct application of the Newtonian World View, though not necessarily of Newtonian physics or mechanics. Evolutionary Social Theory in the Enlightenment laid the foundation for more explicit evolutionary theorizing in the 19th century;
  2. Evolutionary Social Theory in the 19th century was closely related to the Philosophy of Science in the 19th century, was strongly influenced by and influenced the development of biology, and sought to explain the extensive changes in social organization of the 19th century;
  3. Evolutionary Social Theory in both the 18th and 19th centuries was at times critical of social hierarchies, but was nevertheless inhibited by racist, sexist, classist and ethnocentric assumptions. These assumptions were facilitated by a facile equation of biological and social evolution an error that was committed even by theorists often thought of as progressive, including, Thorstein Veblen;
  4. Evolutionary Social Theory fell out of favor in the early 20th century due to multiple factors, including, but not limited to a rejection of the racist and ethnocentric assumptions that were often both implicit and explicit in the writings of the evolutionary social theory of the era. However, it was also due to a rejection of Marxism, naïve Empiricism and a turn in all the social sciences towards static, equilibrium theorizing and especially in economics, mathematical formalism;
  5. The resurrection of evolutionary social theory in the late 20th century is also owed to multiple factors, including the increased prestige of evolutionary biology, a broader understanding of science, a separation of evolutionary social theory from racist and ethnocentric assumptions, the separation of biological and social evolution, and the ability of evolutionary social theory to explain change;
  6. The path forward for Evolutionary Social Theory is via a broad synthesis that incorporates evolutionary explanations across the social sciences.

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