On the use of evolutionary theories

Personal development career

The final installation of the 3 part series where Lasse Gerrits discusses the ins and outs of collective decision making.

To most people, the term ‘evolution’ will be closely connected to the work of Charles Darwin, his voyage around the world in the Beagle, his observations regarding the variation of species, even his bearded image perhaps. His book ,On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859), in which he proposed common descent and subsequent variation, natural selection and retention in order to explain nature’s diversity, laid down the foundations of contemporary evolutionary biology. Unfortunately, many readers also believe that Darwin’s ideas, and evolutionary theories in general, are restricted to the domain of biology. Evolutionary theories would therefore ‘not apply’ to the social world. This divide between biology on the one hand and the social sciences on the other is rather unfortunate, because it means that one forfeits a theoretical framework that holds considerable explanatory power. Also, the divide is a thoroughly artificial one. Allow us to elaborate.

Back in the days when Darwin was roaming the planet, evolutionary theories were going through rapid changes – accelerated evolution, as it were. Interestingly, the separation between biology and the social world was not so strict. For example, Darwin noted the major differences between inhabitants and ‘civilized people’ at Tierra del Fuego, and, upon meeting slave owners in both Brazil and Cape

Town, concluded that similar economic circumstances can lead to similar customs despite considerable geographical differences. In his writing, he was influenced by e.g. Adam Smith (he of The Wealth of Nations fame). Darwin would find inspiration in Smith’s idea that the individual’s efforts to pursue self-interest may frequently benefit society more than if the person’s actions were directly intended to benefit society; that is, self-interest is not at odds with the greater good and could help in attaining group fitness. Smith’s theory stresses that the choices and actions of individuals are restricted by a short time horizon and span of control, as short-sighted self-interest doesn’t take into account the group’s long-term perspective, yet still relates to the group’s likelihood of survival. While Smith was not in search of an evolutionary theory per se, his ideas have a decidedly evolutionary ring to them.

Other inspiration came from e.g. Herbert Spencer, a philosopher, biologist, anthropologist, sociologist and political theorist (those were the days that scientists could be anything!). Spencer believed that all structures in the universe develop from a simple, undifferentiated homogeneity to a complex, differentiated heterogeneity. He identified four stages that societies (presumably) would have to go through. They described human development from that of rudimentary societies with little organization to that of the great civilized nations. Differentiation, so present in Darwin’s work, was the key concept by which Spencer could understand the development of life at large. The phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ was also coined by the same Spencer.

So, there you have it. The Victorian thinkers were as much researching the social as they investigated the biological world. Scientific progress meant that some ideas were rejected, while others have remained. Evolution in the social sciences gained a rather bad reputation for a number of reasons. Some people had troubles with seeing the difference between what is and what ought to be, subsequently abusing evolutionary theories to justify their wretched policies. Others simply found it impossible to actually assess the evolution of societies. And then there were scholars such as Talcott Parsons, who developed elaborate theoretical frameworks that seemed to hinge on some disputable assumptions (Homeostasis, in the case of Parsons. To be fair, we also believe that he was often misunderstood).

Some of the criticism is justified. However, it would be rather unfortunate to remove evolutionary theories from the social sciences altogether. Luckily, there are quite a few scholars who can see that some of the mechanisms from evolutionary theories still have explanatory value for the social world. Armin Alchian, for example, deployed variation, selection and survival in order to criticize assumptions of perfect foresight, profit maximization and utility maximization as guides for decision making in the competition between firms. This is still relevant today. Or take the ideas of Richard Norgaard, who borrowed the idea of coevolution to demonstrate that human activities that appear progressive can actually harm the same humans in the long run. There are many such examples out there. Rather than keeping biology and the social sciences in their own little containers, there is much to be gained from cross-fertilization (pun intended). So let’s reconnect. Don’t be shy. Darwin and his contemporaries did it first, we can now follow.


Lasse Gerrits, Department of Political Science, Otto-Friedrich University Bamberg, Germany


Gerrits Understanding

Understanding Collective Decision Making by Lasse Gerrits and Peter Marks is available now.

Read chapter one free on Elgaronline.

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