Generalizing Darwinism to Social Evolution: Some Early Attempts

Article excerpt

Richard Dawkins coined the term universal Darwinism (1983). It suggests that the core Darwinian principles of variation, replication, and selection may apply not only to biological phenomena but also to other open and evolving systems, including human cultural or social evolution. Dawkins argued that if life existed elsewhere in the universe, it would follow the Darwinian rules of variation, inheritance, and selection. He had earlier proposed the "meme" as the unit of cultural replication and selection (1976). (1) This idea that Darwinism may have a broad applicability to other open and evolving systems has been developed in different ways by several contemporary authors, including Richard Lewontin (1970), Henry Plotkin (1994), Daniel Dennett (1995), and David Hull (1988, Hull et al. 2001).

However, the idea that Darwinian principles apply to aspects of human and social evolution is much older and dates back to the time of Charles Darwin. Darwin himself speculated that his evolutionary principles of variation, inheritance, and selection might apply to the evolution of human language, as well as to moral principles and social groups (1859, 1871). A sequence of other authors followed suit but did not resolve the conceptual problems in defining what exactly we mean by social evolution, as something more than the evolution of a mere collection of human beings. Accordingly, we have to ask what units of social replication or selection are proposed in these accounts. And in what sense might they amount to more than merely an aggregation of individuals? These questions point to matters of social theory that are relatively neglected even in modern versions of universal Darwinism. One of the conclusions of this paper is that an adequate conceptual explanation of the units and processes of Darwinian social evolution has yet to appear, although such an account may now be possible.

This paper is divided into four sections. The first section outlines the basic idea of a generalized, or "universal," Darwinism. The second outlines a number of early predecessors of the idea, with emphasis on attempts to extend Darwinism to human social evolution. It is shown that these early accounts of social evolution typically focus on the individual rather than on social units of replication or selection. The third section focuses more particularly on some early accounts of units of replication or selection in social evolution that emerged in and after the 1890s. The last section concludes the essay and highlights some implications for recent attempts to extend Darwinism into the social domain.

Generalizing Darwinism

In introducing the term universal Darwinism, Dawkins argued that if life existed elsewhere in the universe, it would follow the Darwinian rules of variation, inheritance, and selection (1983). Even if there were a very different system of replication, including one that allowed the "Lamarckian" inheritance of acquired characters, a coherent account of the evolutionary process would still require the key elements of the Darwinian theory. Even in the social context, where acquired characters might be inherited, such Lamarckism requires Darwinism to complete its explanations and is not an alternative to it. (2) As long as there is a population of replicating entities that makes imperfect copies of themselves, and not all of these entities have the potential to survive, then Darwinian evolution will occur.

The idea of a generalized Darwinism has been applied to the development of neural connections in the brain, the immune system, and computer viruses (Edelman 1987; Plotkin 1994; Aunger 2002). These are cases not merely of analogy but of the existence of additional processes (additional to those at the genetic level) that are actually evolving in accord with the core Darwinian principles of variation, inheritance, and selection. Significantly, Gary Cziko (1995) described the acknowledgement of such a "universal selection theory" as "the Second Darwinian Revolution. …