How can institutional economics be an evolutionary science?

Author:Poirot, Clifford

The idea that Institutional Economics can and should be an evolutionary science based on biological models of evolution has a long pedigree among Original Institutional Economists, starting of course with Thorstein Veblen (1898). (1) Among contemporary Original Institutional Economists, Geoffrey Hodgson has emerged as the leading advocate of this view (1993; 1995; 1996; 2004; 2005; and Hodgson and Knudsen 2006). His views have received support from Tony Lawson (2002). Hodgson has argued that Original Institutional Economics (OIE) can and should be a form of "Universal Darwinism," a term originally employed by Dawkins ([1982] 1999) and Dennett (1995). As Dawkins and Dennett originally used the term, it entailed a reductionist approach to biology, a philosophical commitment to an all encompassing materialism, and a strong reliance on the principle of inclusive fitness to explain animal behavior. Hodgson's use of the term, however, does not imply (at least for Hodgson) a commitment to these principles. Instead, he views Universal Darwinism as a meta-theoretical perspective that entails the principles of variation, inheritance and selection, regardless of what the principle of inheritance might entail. Thus, the ability of humans to transmit learned traits from one generation to the next through culture does not present a barrier to the application of Darwinian principles to the evolution of culture. At the same time, he argues that the study of cultural evolution requires the addition of "specific, detailed mechanisms" to explain culture change and reaffirms the importance of cultural emergence as a central principle for OIE and for the social sciences in general (Hodgson 2005; Hodgson and Knudsen 2006).

Hodgson's advocacy of Universal Darwinism as a "meta-theory" leaves significant questions unanswered and requires extended discussion on several key points. My goal in this paper is to engage in this extended discussion and to point to numerous problems that arise with the use and application of the term "Universal Darwinism." I agree that Original Institutional Economics can and should be an evolutionary science. However, I am skeptical about treating Darwinism as a meta-theory and instead argue that it should be viewed as a scientific research tradition within evolutionary biology. Indeed, in modern evolutionary biology the term "Neo-Darwinism" has become virtually synonymous with evolutionary biology. I also question the utility or applicability of the term "Universal Darwinism" to either Original Institutional Economics or the Social Sciences in general. I argue that if our goal is to revive our interest in social evolution, we will do better to build on the neo-evolutionist trends in anthropology.

The arguments of this paper proceed in six components. In the first section, I discuss the concept of research traditions and its relationship to contemporary Classical Pragmatism. In section two, I show how this approach allows us to understand and distinguish between Darwin's Darwinism, nineteenth century "Darwinism" and the modern Neo-Darwinist (synthetic) theory of evolutionary biology. In sections three and four, I discuss the meaning of several key principles of modern evolutionary biology and relate these to the rise of Sociobiology. In section five, I discuss the rise of neo-evolutionism in anthropology and its differences with Sociobiology. In the sixth section, the conclusion, I briefly review the arguments and discuss the implications for a broad theory of evolutionary political economy that is consistent in general with OIE. I affirm the importance of evolutionary political economy as a constructive program focused on the evolution of material life processes and the institutions humans create to further material life processes. (2)

Research Traditions and the Pragmatist Approach to Science

Both Hodgson and Lawson draw extensively on Critical Realism in advancing their views of OIE as an evolutionary science. Critical realists seek foundations for knowledge in ontology. They insist that we look past surface observations to understand how things are really constituted. In contrast, my approach to science is rooted in Classical Pragmatism (Pierce 2006a, 2006b; Haack 1993; Haack and Lane 2006; Laudan 1990; 1996; and Quine 2004a; 2004b; 2004c; 2004d). Classical Pragmatists such as Dewey (2006) and Pierce (2006a, 2006b) have exerted a strong influence on OIE, though there is sometimes a tendency to confuse their version of Pragmatism with that of contemporary Neo-Pragmatism (Rorty 1989; Haack 1993, chapter 9). Most recently, James Webb (n.d.) has drawn the connection between the Classical Pragmatists of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, OIE, and modern Classical Pragmatists such as Susan Haack.

Classical Pragmatism abandons the search for a first philosophy and for the "thing in itself" and insists on rooting our claims to knowledge in observation and experience of the phenomena, rather than in meta-theory. Classical Pragmatism does not deny that we have ontologies (ideas about what kinds of entities we think do and do not exist), but it views ontologies as built up through the general experience of science and as potentially revisable in light of further scientific investigation (Haack 1993). The goal of the classical pragmatist approach to knowledge is as Larry Laudan notes, to distinguish "reliable and well tested claims to knowledge from bogus ones" (1996, 86). It maintains an allegiance to the concept of truth in the strong sense: the statement "snow is white" is true, if and only if, snow is white. Warranted knowledge and acceptance of a statement as warranted knowledge thus implies that we accept a statement as true. Or as Haack (1993) puts it, to believe that p, and to be willing to act on p, is to accept p as true.

Classical pragmatism recognizes that our claims to knowledge cannot be reduced to the experience of atomized sense datum. Rather the world comes at us and we attempt to organize our knowledge of it in complete sentences. Our sentences in turn fit into our web of belief that we build up through reason, observation and experience as a community of researchers. In a sense, whenever we test a proposition, we test all science (Quine 2004a; 2004b). This does not mean that we cannot accept or reject specific observation statements or theoretical propositions without jettisoning the entire system of knowledge (Laudan 1990; Sober 1999; Quine 2004b). Nor do we need to insist on holding on to propositions come what may, by revising the meaning of our terms. We accumulate claims to warranted knowledge over time through what Susan Haack has termed "foundherentism." Haack explains this through the metaphor of a crossword puzzle. We seek answers to specific clues and fit those answers in with other answers based on our warrant of belief in other answers. Some answers fit well with existing knowledge. Other answers require modification of only related entries. On other occasions, a new answer may require fundamental reexamination of the entire puzzle to date (Haack 1993, Chapter Four).

Larry Laudan has sought to integrate some of these ideas into a more general view of how scientific progress may take place in broader systems of belief, which he terms scientific research traditions. (3) Research traditions are composed of ontologies, theoretical cores, and observation statements, as well as methodological and epistemological principles for testing theories. It is possible for research traditions to contain specific theories that are inconsistent with each other, yet consistent with the more general assumptions of the research tradition. It is also possible for specific theories to be inconsistent with the broader tradition. Research traditions seek resolution of "problems." Problems may be empirical issues that need to be explained. Differences between theories with the tradition, or conflicts between theories and ontological views are examples of conceptual problems. Progress is measured in part by how many empirical problems and conceptual problems are solved.

The accumulation of warranted claims to empirical knowledge takes place through the process of hypothesis formation and testing. Specific hypotheses and theories can be tested, rejected, accepted, pursued, or supported depending on the level of empirical support versus disconfirmation. Laudan argues that in testing statements we lack a clear logic of deductive falsification. Thus, we must resort to broader, ampliative logic. Or to borrow Pierce's term, abduction in deciding which theories warrant our support and which do not. The conception of scientific change advanced by Laudan is one in which change takes place through a step-by-step, cognitively rational process rather than a sudden and total paradigm shift. Research traditions are therefore evolving entities (Laudan 1990, 83). Laudan's approach also allows for synthesis between even rival traditions, though notably, attempted syntheses require careful working out of conceptual issues to avoid incoherence and eclecticism.

The failure to resolve empirical problems will not lead, in and of itself, to abandonment of the research tradition, though it may result in modifications. Empirical problems only become problems for the research tradition as a whole when a rival research tradition offers a better answer to the same empirical problem. In judging progressivity, Laudan allows there to be both content loss and content gain. This requires us to weigh sometimes-competing goals in assessing scientific progress. For example, specific theories, or entire research traditions, may show promise in progress toward problem solving or in making predictions, yet lack the adequacy of established theories or research traditions that offer explanation and thus save the phenomena. Laudan argues that we can partially resolve this tension by accepting theories or research traditions...

To continue reading