How Veblen Generalized Darwinism

By Hodgson, Geoffrey M. | Journal of Economic Issues, June 2008 | Go to article overview

How Veblen Generalized Darwinism


Hodgson, Geoffrey M., Journal of Economic Issues


Thorstein Veblen repeatedly proclaimed the need for a "post-Darwinian" economics. (1) However, the Darwinian aspect of Veblenian thinking was largely neglected, both by later commentators and by the tradition of American institutionalism that Veblen inspired (Hodgson 2003; 2004a). This paper establishes that Veblen followed Darwin in proposing that Darwinian principles can be generalized to apply to the evolution of social as well as biological phenomena.

Social scientists have often wrongly dismissed Darwinism as supporting racism or nationalism (Hodgson 2006). It endorses neither inequality nor strife. Further, as Veblen (1896, 100) wrote, "it is ... only by injecting a wholly illegitimate teleological meaning to the term 'fittest' as used by Darwin and the Darwinists that the expression 'survival of the fittest' is made to mean a survival of the socially desirable individuals." A Veblenian application of generalized Darwinian principles to social evolution does not mean the adoption of "social Darwinism" as widely understood. What, then, does it mean? It is also logically independent of the separate question whether or not (some) human phenomena can be (partly) explained in biological terms. (2)

The Domain and Meaning of Generalized Darwinism

If--like Veblen (1909a, 300)--we reject the idea that explanations of social phenomena can be reduced entirely to biological terms, then what place is left for Darwinism in the social sciences? Darwin (1859, 422-3; 1871, vol. 1, 59-61) himself conjectured that natural selection operates upon the elements of human language as well as on individual organisms. Darwin (1871, vol. 1, 166) also argued that tribal groups with ethical ideas that served the common good would be favored by "natural selection."

A small number of astute thinkers have considered the possibility that Darwinian mechanisms in some general sense might also apply to the evolution of societies, cultures and ideas. Walter Bagehot (1872) wrote of inheritance and natural selection in the social and political sphere. William James (1880, 441) opened a pathbreaking essay with the observation of a "remarkable parallel ... between the facts of social evolution on the one hand, and of zoological evolution as expounded by Mr. Darwin on the other." Samuel Alexander (1892) and Benjamin Kidd (1894) wrote on the natural selection, of ethical principles. And David Ritchie (1896, 171) considered "a 'natural selection' of ideas, customs, institutions, irrespective of the natural selection of individuals and of races." The scene was set for Veblen's crucial innovations. (3)

Contrary to some misconceptions (Cordes 2006; Witt 2006), the idea of generalizing Darwinism is not essentially about biological metaphors or analogies. Instead, it relies on common abstract features in both the social and the biological world. It is essentially a contention of a degree of ontological communality, at a high level of abstraction and not at the level of detail. (4)

With an analogy, phenomena and processes in one domain are taken as the reference point for the study of similar phenomena or processes in another domain. By contrast, generalization in science starts from a copious array of different phenomena and processes, without giving analytical priority to any of them over others. Given that the entities and processes involved are very different, any common principles will be highly abstract and will not reflect detailed mechanisms unique to any particular domain.

Generalizing Darwinism does not rely on the mistaken idea that the mechanisms of evolution in the social and the biological world are similar. Not only does natural and social evolution differ greatly in their details, but also detailed mechanisms differ greatly within the biological world. To say that two sets of phenomena are similar in highly general terms does not imply that they are similar in detailed respects.

Darwinism addresses what we may describe as "complex population systems," found in both nature and society (Hodgson and Knudsen 2006a; Aldrich et al. …

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