, Volume 22, Issue 1, pp 73-94
Date: 06 Jun 2006

Universal Darwinism and evolutionary social science

Rent the article at a discount

Rent now

* Final gross prices may vary according to local VAT.

Get Access


Save for Anthropologists, few social scientists have been among the participants in the discussions about the appropriate structure of a ‘Universal Darwinism’. Yet evolutionary theorizing about cultural, social, and economic phenomena has a long tradition, going back well before Darwin. And over the past quarter century significant literatures have grown up concerned with the processes of change operating on science, technology, business organization and practice, and economic change more broadly, that are explicitly evolutionary in theoretical orientation. In each of these fields of study, the broad proposition put forth by Darwin that change proceeds through a process involving variation, systematic selection, renewed variation... has proved both persuasive and powerful. On the other hand, the evolutionary processes involved in these areas differ in essential ways from those we now know are operative in the evolution of biological species. The objective of this essay is to highlight those differences, which a ‘Universal Darwinism’ needs to encompass, if it is to be broad enough to be a theory that is applicable to the evolution of human cultures as well as evolution in biology.

*Many scholars read and commented on earlier versions of this manuscript, and helped me to think through the issues. I want to thank in particular Geoffrey Hodgson, David Hull, Tjorborn Knudsen, and Peter Murmann, whose readings and reactions were particularly important in shaping the final product. None of these scholars should be assumed to buy all of my argument, even though I am strongly indebted to each of them for helping me learn to formulate it.