Can a Generalized Darwinism Be Criticized? A Rejoinder to Geoffrey Hodgson

By Cordes, Christian | Journal of Economic Issues, March 2007 | Go to article overview

Can a Generalized Darwinism Be Criticized? A Rejoinder to Geoffrey Hodgson


Cordes, Christian, Journal of Economic Issues


I very much appreciate Geoffrey Hodgson's reply to my article for I think that the debate on the role of biological concepts in economics in general is an important one, especially so for the field of evolutionary economics. There still is a great demand for clarification and I am glad to get the opportunity by the editor of this journal to contribute some more thoughts on that topic.

After having read Hodgson's response in which he claims that my criticisms are more or less "irrelevant," I asked myself whether it is--in principle--possible to criticize his concept of a generalized Darwinism. Hodgson concedes the validity of all my objections to a transfer of Darwinian principles to cultural evolution (for details see also Cordes 2006): behaviors, habits, routines, or institutions do not exhibit the constancy of genetic material, but are adapted systematically to selection pressure. Cultural evolution is characterized by a systematic feedback between variation and selection, which is a problem for concepts that rely on an identification of pheno- and genotypes in cultural evolution (or interactors and replicators in Hodgson's terms). The processes and criteria of selection in cultural evolution are very dissimilar from biological selection. The sources of variation differ fundamentally (human creativity and motivation!), there is the problem of inheritance for there is no direct analogy to the gene--the replicator in the biological realm--in the socioeconomic sphere; on the contrary, in cultural transmission the active part is on the subject that disseminates or perceives information, etc. What, then, are the merits of a generalized Darwinism when we strip off all concrete contents from this concept and stick to a very abstract notion of it that is not amenable to any kind of criticism? What are the dangers connected to such an approach? In the following, I would like to discuss some of Hodgson's comments in order to answer these questions.

For instance, as regards the contrast between diffusion and selection, which, Hodgson maintains (272), I do not make clear in my paper, this is a good example to emphasize the differences between biological and cultural evolution, as well as to show the fruitfulness of his approach to theory development in economics. The diffusion of novelty in social systems--a crucial characteristic of evolving economic systems--depends on processes of social learning. Models of cultural transmission provide a formal means to depict these processes and to account for the mechanisms that increase the frequency of some cultural variants and reduce that of others without referring to the abstract principles of a generalized Darwinism. Within the scope of these models, cultural transmission is influenced by learned or innate biases, such as a role model bias that makes agent to preferentially copy prestigious or successful individuals, direct biases preferring certain cultural contents, a conformity bias that adopts the more frequent cultural variant in a population, and others (see Boyd and Richerson 1985; Richerson and Boyd 2005).

In general, cultural transmission biases are forces that arise because people's psychology makes them more likely to adopt some cultural contents rather than others, thereby changing the frequency of the different types of cultural variants in the population. Many of these biases have an evolutionary history and to understand this history, Darwinian concepts are inevitable. This is perfectly in line with the continuity hypothesis. These processes of social learning are based on specific cultural transmission mechanisms that can explain a whole range of social phenomena. To provide a concrete example, together with three coauthors, I applied this method to the analysis of evolving business cultures and the question of how cooperation can be maintained in such a setting (Cordes et al. 2006a; 2006b). There is a lot of Darwinism in such an approach, but it is unclear to me how a generalized Darwinism would direct concrete research in this field. …

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