Towards a Reconsideration of Social Evolution: Symbiosis and Its Implications for Economics

By Watkins, John P. | Journal of Economic Issues, March 1998 | Go to article overview

Towards a Reconsideration of Social Evolution: Symbiosis and Its Implications for Economics


Watkins, John P., Journal of Economic Issues


Renewed interest among economists in Darwin's theory has generated confusion regarding the meaning of social evolution. Does social evolution refer to the selective adaptation of institutions as advanced by old institutionalism? Or does evolution reduce to rational calculation as advanced by neoinstitutionalists, sociobiologists, and neoclassical economists? The confusion is revealed by Lamar Jones's query: if Darwin's theory of evolution supports the neoclassical vision, how can proponents of old institutionalism describe their theory as evolutionary [Jones 1986]?

The debate between the old institutional and neoclassical economists finds a parallel in a debate that has recently emerged among biologists. Most biologists adhere to the neo-Darwinian synthesis, a combination of Darwin's principle of natural selection with Mendelin genetics. Species evolve gradually, the result of random changes in the genetic code in light of natural selection. Competition rules.

Recent research in biology, however, cast doubts about the simplistic vision of evolution presented by the neo-Darwinists. The theory of symbiosis in particular makes two points. First, evolution is not always gradual. New species may arise from the merging of two or more species. Second, evolution may also result from "cooperation." The symbiotic theory focuses not on the individual organism as the unit of "selection," but on the relationships that in fact define the "individual" organism.

The confusion over evolution stems from a fundamental methodological difference. Are organisms best understood in terms of their relationships with other organisms? Or are living organisms biological atoms engaged in a competitive struggle for survival? If evolution results from a competitive struggle among biological atoms, how do we explain cooperation? For neoinstitutionalists, the institution that defines how individuals cooperate turns on which institutions minimize costs [Rutherford 1995]. Cooperation and altruism reduce to rational calculation of self-interested individuals. Sociobiologists, with whom neoinstitutionalists and neoclassical economists uncritically agree, take the reduction one step further. Rational individuals are products of "selfish genes." As Richard Dawkins boldly claims, the "predominant quality to be expected in a successful gene is ruthless selfishness. This gene selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behavior" [Dawkins 1976, 2].

The emerging debate requires a reconsideration of social evolution. This reconsideration involves a number of issues. First, what do institutionalists mean by social evolution? How do we reconcile Veblen's use of Darwin's theory with Jones's claim that Darwin's theory supports the neoclassical view? How does the institutionalist view of social evolution differ from the neoclassical view as expressed in new institutional economics? Second, what elements does Darwin's theory share in common with sociobiology and neoclassical economics? To what extent do these elements "mirror" the culture of nineteenth-century market economy? Third, are there problems with the neo-Darwinian synthesis that undermine the socio-cultural view of evolution, a view characterized by its claims to the superiority of Western institutions, culture, and outlook? How does the theory of symbiosis overcome these problems while also supporting a vision of social evolution held by institutional economists?

Reconciling Darwin, Veblen, and Ayres

It was only a matter of time before someone questioned the validity of Veblen's use of Darwin. In an article appearing in the Southern Economic Journal, Lamar Jones argued that institutionalists have followed Veblen down a blind alley [Jones 1986]. Jones assumes that since the classical economists influenced Darwin, and since Darwin influenced Veblen, Veblen unwittingly criticizes the very doctrines that underlie Veblen's evolutionary approach.(1)

Jones's critique evokes three responses. …

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