Generalizing Darwinism to social evolution: some early attempts.

Author:Hodgson, Geoffrey M.

Richard Dawkins coined the term universal Darwinism (1983). It suggests that the core Darwinian principles of variation, replication, and selection may apply not only to biological phenomena but also to other open and evolving systems, including human cultural or social evolution. Dawkins argued that if life existed elsewhere in the universe, it would follow the Darwinian rules of variation, inheritance, and selection. He had earlier proposed the "meme" as the unit of cultural replication and selection (1976). (1) This idea that Darwinism may have a broad applicability to other open and evolving systems has been developed in different ways by several contemporary authors, including Richard Lewontin (1970), Henry Plotkin (1994), Daniel Dennett (1995), and David Hull (1988, Hull et al. 2001).

However, the idea that Darwinian principles apply to aspects of human and social evolution is much older and dates back to the time of Charles Darwin. Darwin himself speculated that his evolutionary principles of variation, inheritance, and selection might apply to the evolution of human language, as well as to moral principles and social groups (1859, 1871). A sequence of other authors followed suit but did not resolve the conceptual problems in defining what exactly we mean by social evolution, as something more than the evolution of a mere collection of human beings. Accordingly, we have to ask what units of social replication or selection are proposed in these accounts. And in what sense might they amount to more than merely an aggregation of individuals? These questions point to matters of social theory that are relatively neglected even in modern versions of universal Darwinism. One of the conclusions of this paper is that an adequate conceptual explanation of the units and processes of Darwinian social evolution has yet to appear, although such an account may now be possible.

This paper is divided into four sections. The first section outlines the basic idea of a generalized, or "universal," Darwinism. The second outlines a number of early predecessors of the idea, with emphasis on attempts to extend Darwinism to human social evolution. It is shown that these early accounts of social evolution typically focus on the individual rather than on social units of replication or selection. The third section focuses more particularly on some early accounts of units of replication or selection in social evolution that emerged in and after the 1890s. The last section concludes the essay and highlights some implications for recent attempts to extend Darwinism into the social domain.

Generalizing Darwinism

In introducing the term universal Darwinism, Dawkins argued that if life existed elsewhere in the universe, it would follow the Darwinian rules of variation, inheritance, and selection (1983). Even if there were a very different system of replication, including one that allowed the "Lamarckian" inheritance of acquired characters, a coherent account of the evolutionary process would still require the key elements of the Darwinian theory. Even in the social context, where acquired characters might be inherited, such Lamarckism requires Darwinism to complete its explanations and is not an alternative to it. (2) As long as there is a population of replicating entities that makes imperfect copies of themselves, and not all of these entities have the potential to survive, then Darwinian evolution will occur.

The idea of a generalized Darwinism has been applied to the development of neural connections in the brain, the immune system, and computer viruses (Edelman 1987; Plotkin 1994; Aunger 2002). These are cases not merely of analogy but of the existence of additional processes (additional to those at the genetic level) that are actually evolving in accord with the core Darwinian principles of variation, inheritance, and selection. Significantly, Gary Cziko (1995) described the acknowledgement of such a "universal selection theory" as "the Second Darwinian Revolution."

As such, Darwinian evolution is not tied to the specifics of genes or DNA: essentially it requires some replicating entity. On planet Earth, we find that DNA has the capacity to replicate. But other "replicators" may exist, on Earth and elsewhere, Emphatically, "universal Darwinism" is not a version of biological reductionism or "biological imperialism," where an attempt is made to explain everything in biological terms. The existence of Darwinian mechanisms also does not mean that the process involved is always that of genetic variation and selection. On the contrary, "universal Darwinism" upholds that there is a core set of general Darwinian principles that, along with auxiliary explanations specific to each scientific domain, may apply to a wide range of phenomena. Accordingly, even if the detailed mechanisms of change at the social level are quite different from those described in biology, socioeconomic evolution is still Darwinian in several important senses. The Darwinian theory is extremely powerful because it is the only adequately detailed causal account of the evolution of complex systems, including organic life.

However, while all evolving systems may be subject to a core set of Darwinian principles, the notion of universal Darwinism itself provides no alternative to a detailed explanation of the particular emergent properties and processes at the social or biological levels. Acceptance of a generalized Darwinism does not provide all the necessary causal mechanisms and explanations for the social scientist nor obviate the elaborate additional work of specific investigation and detailed causal explanation in the social sphere (Hodgson 2001b). At the center of Darwinism there is a rigorous theory, but it explains little on its own and it is thus placed in the context of a mass of empirical material (Hull 1973). Even in biology, Darwinian principles provide a general explanatory framework into which particular explanations also have to be placed. Universal Darwinism cannot itself give us a full, detailed explanation of evolutionary processes or outcomes. It is a meta-theoretical framework rather than a complete theory.

The application of Darwinian principles to socioeconomic phenomena-consisting of irreducible social entities and structures--depends crucially on the existence of variety, mechanisms of inheritance, and processes of selection in that domain. If meaningful inheritance or selection do not exist, then Darwinian principles do not apply. Clearly, the identification of these processes depends decisively on precise definitions of inheritance (or replication) and selection. In addition the levels of selection have to be made clear, along with the replicators and interactors at each level. Some significant progress has been made in refining these concepts in recent years, while there are still important theoretical, conceptual, and definitional issues to resolve. (3)

A principal aim of this paper is to show that the idea of generalizing Darwinism to social evolution has a long and detailed history, long before Dawkins coined the term universal Darwinism. In the context of the current explosion of interest in evolutionary ideas in the social sciences, we can learn some useful lessons from this history.

Of course, it would be impossible to discuss all the social scientists that did not attempt to apply Darwinian principles. We may briefly note, however, that while several nineteenth century authors did consider the application of Darwinian principles to social phenomena-even mentioning the selection of human groups or nations-most of them got no further than considering mere aggregates of individuals, with typically no mention of characteristics additional to those found among the individuals involved. Some of these authors, namely Henry Drummond, Benjamin Kidd, and Sidney Webb, are mentioned below. Other authors, notably Herbert Spencer and Alfred Marshall, not only failed to establish adequately the nature and significance of social structures but also adopted a Lamarckian account in which the inheritance of acquired characters was considered as more important than selection in the evolutionary process. In the final quarter of the nineteenth century, Spencer was even more influential than Darwin (Bowler 1983). It is now well established that Marshall's evolutionary thinking was much closer to that of Spencer (Thomas 1991; Hodgson 1993; Laurent 2000).

Nevertheless, Darwinian ideas influenced leading intellectuals in several countries, and this influence was not confined to biology (Kohn 1975; Russett 1976). Among these were the American pragmatist philosophers Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. Peirce used Darwinism to underpin an ontology of randomness and novelty. James and Dewey situated the human will within a Darwinian evolutionary framework and also demonstrated the importance of Darwinism for psychology. Beneath the public hubbub about the descent of humans from apes, Darwinian principles had a deeper impact on the theories of a number of important thinkers. The question of the possible generalization of Darwinism to socioeconomic evolution thus remained on the agenda.

Early Extensions of Darwinism to Human Social Evolution

Darwin's own conjecture that core Darwinian principles may apply to the evolution of human language has already been noted. A few years after the publication of his Origin of Species (1859), several scholars followed his hints that the principles of selection, variation, and inheritance may have a wider applicability than to biological organisms alone, including to the evolution of human society.

One of these early attempts was by Walter Bagehot, who loosely but explicitly applied the principles of selection and inheritance to ideas and political institutions (1872). Subsequently, William James considered the natural selection of ideas in human learning and in the development of science...

To continue reading