A response to Christian Cordes and Clifford Poirot.

Author:Hodgson, Geoffrey M.
Position:Notes and Communications

I wish to thank both Christian Cordes (2005; 2006; 2007) and Clifford Poirot (2007) for their thoughtful contributions to an ongoing debate. (1) Work in this area is deepening our understanding of the processes of social and economic evolution and helping to develop a conceptual framework for further analysis.

In this response, I wish to address some remaining points of difference between us. These differences are more numerous in the case of Cordes' work. Indeed, Poirot remarks that there "is probably very little daylight between Hodgson's views and my own." I agree. Consequently, I shall devote my discussion largely to Cordes' article and only occasionally refer to Poirot's. My response is organized in sections, to deal with the most important issues in turn.

First, however, I wish to address a terminological point in response to both Cordes and Poirot. For various reasons, Thorbjorn Knudsen and I now prefer the term "generalized Darwinism" to "universal Darwinism." One reason is that the word "universal" suggests that it covers everything. (2) Instead; we propose (Hodgson and Knudsen 2006a) that Darwinism addresses a particular type of complex phenomena that we describe as "complex population systems." These are defined below.

The second reason is that the term "universal Darwinism" was termed by Richard Dawkins (1983) who has been accused of having a particularly gene-centered view of biological evolution (Hull 2001). Knudsen and I do not endorse a gene-centered view.

Third, the idea of generalizing Darwinism to social, economic or political phenomena pre-dates Dawkins by more than a century. Darwin (1859, 422-3; 1871, vol. 1: 59-61, 106, 166) himself proposed that natural selection operates upon the elements of language and argued that tribal groups with moral and other propensities that served the common good would be favored by natural selection. Following this lead, other writers such as Walter Bagehot (1872), David Ritchie (1896) and Thorstein Veblen (1899; 1919) argued that Darwin's basic ideas could help to explain the evolution not only of individuals, but also of groups, customs, nations, business firms and other social institutions. (3)

Complex Population Systems: Can Darwinism be Generalized?

What are "complex population systems"? (4) The term refers to groups of both biological and social phenomena. It will be shown that they both admit general analysis in terms of Darwinian principles. The complex systems considered here involve populations of entities. Populations are defined by members of a type that are similar in key respects, but within each type, there is some degree of variation, due to genesis or circumstances.

It is assumed that entities within these populations have limited capacities to consume some materials and energy from their environment and they are able to process some information about their environment attained by the use of some sensory mechanisms. These entities may or may not have a developed brain or memory. They may or may not be capable of reflecting on their circumstances and imagining past or future behaviors.

All these entities are mortal and degradable, and they need to consume materials and energy in order to survive or minimize degradation. However, because they do not have access to all environmental resources at once, these entities face an omnipresent problem of local and immediate scarcity. (5) These circumstances present specific problems that have to be solved to minimize degradation and raise the chances of survival. In short, these entities are engaged in a struggle for existence, to use the term adopted by Darwin (1859, 62-63).

Finally, we assume some capacity to retain and pass on to others workable solutions to problems faced in the struggle for existence. The advantages of retaining such problem solutions or adaptations are obvious in avoiding the risks and labor of learning them anew. We assume that some capacity to pass on to others information about such workable solutions exists.

This is the basis of the Darwinian principle of inheritance. It refers to a broad class of mechanisms, including those of "replication" and "descent" (Mayr 1991), by which information concerning adaptations is retained, preserved, passed on or copied through time.

In sum, a complex population system involves populations of non-identical (intentional or non-intentional) entities that face locally scarce resources and problems of survival. Some adaptive solutions to such problems are retained through time and may be passed to other entities. Examples of populations in such systems are plentiful both in nature and in human society. They include every biological species, from amoebas to humans. They would include self-replicating automata, of the type discussed by John von Neumann (1966). In addition, and importantly for the social scientist, they include human institutions, as long as institutions may be regarded as cohesive entities having some capacity for the retention and replication of problem solutions. Such institutions would include business firms (Hodgson and Knudsen 2004).

The Core Darwinian Principles

Having sketched in broad terms the type of "evolutionary" system we are considering, it becomes evident that the evolution of such a system must involve the three Darwinian principles of variation, inheritance, and selection. (6) These abstract principles do not themselves provide all the necessary details, but nevertheless they must be honored. Otherwise, the explanation of the evolution will be inadequate.

Consider the three Darwinian principles in turn. First, there must be some explanation of how variety occurs and how it is replenished in a population. In biological systems, the answers--established since Darwin's death--involve genetic recombination and mutations. By contrast, the evolution of social institutions involves very different mechanisms, but the general problem of the existence and replenishment of variety remains a vital question of evolutionary research (Metcalfe 1998; Nelson 1991; Saviotti 1996).

Second, there must be an explanation of how useful information concerning solutions to particular adaptive problems is retained and passed on. This requirement follows directly from our assumptions concerning the broad nature of complex population systems, where there must be some mechanism by which adaptive solutions are copied or passed on. In biology these mechanisms often involve genes and DNA. In social evolution we may include the replication of habits, customs, rules and routines, all of which may carry solutions to adaptive problems. There must be some mechanism that ensures that some such solutions endure and replicate; otherwise, the continuing retention of useful knowledge would not be possible.

Third, and not least, there must be an explanation of the fact that entities differ in their longevity and fecundity. In given contexts, some entities are more adapted than others, some survive longer than others, and some are more successful in producing offspring or copies of themselves. Here the principle of selection comes in. Briefly, selection involves an anterior set of entities, each interacting with its environment and somehow being transformed into a posterior set where all members of the posterior set are sufficiently similar to some members of the anterior set, and where the resulting frequencies of posterior entities depend upon their properties in the environmental context (Price 1970; 1995). Through selection, a set of entities, a population, will gradually adapt in response to the criteria defined by an environmental factor. In a cold environment, the proportion of mammals with more fat or longer fur is likely to increase.

This broad definition of selection is nevertheless sharp enough to distinguish itself from the principle of variation. The latter requires some explanation of the sources and replenishments of variety. Selection refers to the mechanisms that bring about the survival of some variations rather than others, often reducing variety. Even when both variety-creation and selection involve human agency, as often is the case in the human domain, the two processes are quite...

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