Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 22, Issue 1, pp 73–94 | Cite as

Universal Darwinism and evolutionary social science

  • Richard R. NelsonEmail author


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 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Aunger R. (2000). Darwinizing Culture: The Status of Memetics as a Science. Oxford Un. Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  2. Bagehot W. (1872). Physics and Politics, or, Thoughts on the Application of the Principles of Natural Selection and Inheritance to Political Society. Henry King, LondonGoogle Scholar
  3. Basalla G. (1988). The Evolution of Technology. Cambridge Un. Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  4. Bijker W., Hughes T., Pinch T. (1987) The Social Construction of Technological Systems. MIT Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  5. Boyd R., Richerson P. (1985). Culture and the Evolutionary Process. Un. Of Chicago Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  6. Campbell D. (1960) “Blind Variation and Selective Retention in Creative Thought as an Other Knowledge Process". Psychological Review. 67: 380–400CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Campbell D. (1974). “Evolutionary Epistemology". In: Schilipp P. (ed). The Philosopy of Karl Popper. Open Court Publishing co., LaSalle, IllGoogle Scholar
  8. Cavalli-Sforza L., Feldman M. (1981). Cultural Transmission and Evolution: A Quantitative Approach. Princeton Un. Press, PrincetonGoogle Scholar
  9. Chandler A. (1962). Strategy and Sructure Chapters in the History of Industrial Enterprise. Harvard Un. Press, Cambridge MaGoogle Scholar
  10. Chandler A. (1990). Scale and ScopeThe Dynamics of Industrial Capitalism. Harvard Un. Press, Cambridge MAGoogle Scholar
  11. Constant E. (1980). The Origins of the Turbojet Revolution. Johns Hopkins Un. Press, BaltomoreGoogle Scholar
  12. Croft W. (2000). Explaining Language Change: An Evolutionary Approach. Longman, EssexGoogle Scholar
  13. Dawkins R. (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford Un. Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  14. Dawkins R. (1983). “Universal Darwinism”. In: Bendell D.S. (ed). Evolution from Molecules to Man. Cambridge Un. Press, CambidgeGoogle Scholar
  15. Dennett D. (1995). Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. Simon and Schuster, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  16. Dosi G. (1982) “Technological Paradigms and Technological Trajectories: A Suggested Interpretation of the Determinants and Directions of Technological Change". Research Policy. 11:147–62CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Dosi G. (1988). “Sources, Procedures, and Micoeconomic Effects of Innovation". Journalof Economic Literature. 26:1020–1171Google Scholar
  18. Durham W. (1991). Coevolution: Genes, Culture, and Human Diversity. Stanford Un. Press, StanfordGoogle Scholar
  19. Fligstein N. (1990). The Transformation of Corporate Control. Harvard Un. Press, Cambridge MAGoogle Scholar
  20. Freeman C. (1982). The Economics of Industrial Innovation. Penguin, LondonGoogle Scholar
  21. Gavetti G., Levinthal D. (2000). “Looking Forward and Looking Backward: Cognitive and Experiential Search". Administrative Science Quarterly. 45:113–37CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Hayek F. (1973). Law, Legislation, and Liberty: Volume I: Rules and Order. Routledge and Kegan Paul, LondomGoogle Scholar
  23. Hodgson G. (1993). Economics and Evolution. Polity Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  24. Hodgson G. (1999). Evolution and Institutions: On Evolutionary Economics and the Evolution of Economics. Edward Elgar, CheltenhamGoogle Scholar
  25. Hodgson G. and Knudsen T. (2004). Why we need a generalized Darwinism: and why generalized Darwinism is not enough. ManuscriptGoogle Scholar
  26. Hofstadter R. (1944). Social Darwinism in American Thought: 1860–1915. Un. Of Pennsylvania Press, PhildelphiaGoogle Scholar
  27. Hull D. (1988). Science as a Process: An Evolutionary Account of the Social and Conceptual Development of Science. Un. Of Chicago Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  28. Hull D. (2001). Science and Selection. Cambridge Un. Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  29. Hume D. (1962, first published 1739). A Treatise on human Nature. Macnabb, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  30. Jablonka E. 2002 Between Development and Evolution How to Model Cultural Change. In: Wheeler et al. (eds)Google Scholar
  31. James W. (1897). The Will to Believe. Harcourt Brace, N. Y.Google Scholar
  32. Kitcher P. (1993). The Advancement of Science. Oxford Un. Press, NYGoogle Scholar
  33. Klepper S. 1996. Entry, Exit, Growth, and Innovation Over the Product Cycle. American Economic Review, pp. 562–583Google Scholar
  34. Kuhn T. (1970). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Un. of Chicago Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  35. Latour B. (1986). Science in Action. Milton Keynes Press, LondonGoogle Scholar
  36. Mandeville B. (1970, first published 1724). The Fable of The Bees, Penguin, HarmondsworthGoogle Scholar
  37. Metcalfe S. (1998). Evolutionary Economics and Creative Destruction. Routledge, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  38. Midgley, M. 2002. Choosing the Selectors, in Wheeler et al (eds)Google Scholar
  39. Mokyr J. (1990). The Lever of Riches. Oxford Un. Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  40. Mokyr J. (2002). The Gift of Athena. Princeton Un. Press, PrincetonGoogle Scholar
  41. Nelson R., and Winter S., (1982). An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change. Harvard Un. Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  42. Nelson R. (1995). “Recent Evolutionary Theorizing About Economic Change”. Journal of Economic Literature 33: 48–90Google Scholar
  43. Nelson R., (2004). “The Market Economy and he Scientific Commons”. Research Policy 33:455–471CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Petroski H. (1992). The Evolution of Useful Things. Alfred Knopf, New yorkGoogle Scholar
  45. Plotkin H., (1982). Darwin Machines and the Nature of Knowledge. Harvard Un. Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  46. Plotkin H. 2002. Learning from Culture. In: Wheeler et al. (eds)Google Scholar
  47. Popper K., (1959). The Logic of Scientific Discovery. Basic Books, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  48. Richerson P., and Boyd R., (2005). Not By Genes Alone How Culture Transformed Human Evolution. Chicago, Un. of Chicago PressGoogle Scholar
  49. Romanelli E. 1991. The evolution of new organizational forms. Ann. Rev. Sociol., pp. 79–103Google Scholar
  50. Rosenberg N., (1976). Perspectives on Technology. Cambridge, Cambridge Un. PressGoogle Scholar
  51. Rosenberg N., (1982). Inside the Black Box Technology and Economics. Cambridge, Cambridge Un. PressGoogle Scholar
  52. Saviotti P., (1996). Technological Evolution, Variety, and the Economy. Edard Elgar, LondonGoogle Scholar
  53. Schumpeter J., (1934). The Theory of Economic Development. Harvard Un. Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  54. Schumpeter J., (1950). Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. Cambridge MA., Cambridge un. PressGoogle Scholar
  55. Smith A. (1970, first published1776). The Wealth of NationsPenguin, HarmondsworthGoogle Scholar
  56. Tushman M., and Anderson P., (1986). “Technological Discontinuities and Organizational Environments”. Administrative Sciences Quarterly 31:439–465CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Veblen T., (1898). “Why is Economics Not an Evolutionary Science”. Quarterly Journal of Economics 12:373–97CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Veblen T. (1899). The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study in the Evolution of Institutions. Macmillan, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  59. Vincenti W., (1990). What Engineers Know and How They Know It. Johns Hopkins Press, BaltimoreGoogle Scholar
  60. Vincenti W., (1994). “The Retractable Landing Gear and the Northrup Anomoly”. Technolgy and Culture 35:1–33CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Wheeler M.,, Ziman J., and Boden M., (2002), The Evolution of Cultural Entities, Oxford Un Press for the British Academy, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  62. Winter S., and Szulanski G., (2000). “Replication as a Strategy”. Organization Science 11:730–743Google Scholar
  63. Witt U., (2003), The Evolving Economy: Essays on the Evolutionary Approach to Economics, Edard Elgar, CheltenhamGoogle Scholar
  64. Ziman J., (2000). Technolgical Innovation as an Evolutionary Process. Cambridge Un. Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  65. Ziman J. 2002. Introduction: selectionist reasoning as a tool of thought. In: Wheeler, Ziman, and Boden (eds)Google Scholar
  66. Zollo M., and Winter S., (2002). “Deliberate Learning and the Evolution of Dynamic Capabilities”. Organization Science 13:339–351CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, Inc. 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Columbia Earth InstituteColumbia UniversityNew YorkUSA

Personalised recommendations