Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 22, Issue 1, pp 73-94

First online:

Universal Darwinism and evolutionary social science

  • Richard R. NelsonAffiliated withColumbia Earth Institute, Columbia University Email author 

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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.


Cultural change Evolution Social science research Universal Darwinism