Darwin's Conjecture: The Search for General Principles of Social and Economic Evolution


Of paramount importance to the natural sciences, the principles of Darwinism, which involve variation, inheritance, and selection, are increasingly of interest to social scientists as well. But no one has provided a truly rigorous account of how the principles apply to the evolution of human society—until now.

In Darwin’s Conjecture, Geoffrey Hodgson and Thorbjørn Knudsen reveal how the British naturalist’s core concepts apply to a wide range of phenomena, including business ...

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Darwin's Conjecture: The Search for General Principles of Social and Economic Evolution

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Of paramount importance to the natural sciences, the principles of Darwinism, which involve variation, inheritance, and selection, are increasingly of interest to social scientists as well. But no one has provided a truly rigorous account of how the principles apply to the evolution of human society—until now.

In Darwin’s Conjecture, Geoffrey Hodgson and Thorbjørn Knudsen reveal how the British naturalist’s core concepts apply to a wide range of phenomena, including business practices, legal systems, technology, and even science itself. They also critique some prominent objections to applying Darwin to social science, arguing that ultimately Darwinism functions as a general theoretical framework for stimulating further inquiry. Social scientists who adopt a Darwinian approach, they contend, can then use it to frame and help develop new explanatory theories and predictive models.

This truly pathbreaking work at long last makes the powerful conceptual tools of Darwin available to the social sciences and will be welcomed by scholars and students from a range of disciplines.

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Editorial Reviews

Robin I.M. Dunbar
“A long-awaited and desperately needed guide to why the social sciences should take Darwin seriously. Erudite, lucidly written—a veritable tour de force.”--Robin I. M. Dunbar, University of Oxford
Howard E. Aldrich
“In this provocative and informative new book, Hodgson and Knudsen offer a general conceptual scheme that allows the application of Darwinian principles to social and economic evolution. The authors bring together concepts and principles from an eclectic mix of sources. Among other applications, they show the usefulness of this scheme for explaining the evolution of prelinguistic culture, human language, tribal customs, writing and records, states and laws, and the institutionalization of science and technology. This book is essential reading for anyone interested in modern evolutionary thought as applied to the social sciences.”--Howard E. Aldrich, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Peter A. Corning
“This is a foundational book. It should be required reading for anyone who is concerned about the future of economic theory, not to mention those who may need some retrofitting in the wake of the neoclassical meltdown.”--Peter A. Corning, Institute for the Study of Complex Systems
David Lee Hull
“In Darwin’s Conjecture, Hodgson and Knudsen join numerous scholars from Darwin’s day to the present in attempting to extend Darwin’s analysis of selection to cover other sorts of phenomena, including socioeconomic evolution. The reader of this carefully and clearly written book will come away bereft of the usual superficial objections to selection outside gene-based biological evolution.”--David Lee Hull, Northwestern University
Marion Blute
“One of the most accomplished institutional economists of our time and his coauthor argue for a generalized Darwinism for the social sciences. They are far from alone in thinking that the time is right!”--Marion Blute, University of Toronto
Financial Times

"A book that business people should read in order to understand business. It is a scholarly and profound work of relevance to all the social sciences."—Financial Times

"Hodgson and Knudsen argue in meticulous detail that [Darwin's] principles apply to all 'complex systems of population' in social and economic domains. . . . The authors conducted a massive amount of research in writing this book, which is a must read for social science scholars interested in evolutionary theory or complexity."

“Hodgson and Knudsen recognize that Darwinian principles operate at a high level of generality and that many differences exist between the biological and the social mechanisms through which variation appears, is selected, and is then inherited. Nevertheless, generalized Darwinism can be one of the foundations of a new science of evolutionary social change. . . . Well argued, timely, and well written . . . [Darwin’s Conjecture is] essential reading for anyone with an interest in [this] vibrant new field.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226005782
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 1/9/2013
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 1,457,146
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Geoffrey M. Hodgson is research professor in business studies at the University of Hertfordshire, England, and the author of over a dozen books, including The Evolution of Institutional Economics and How Economics Forgot History. Thorbjørn Knudsen is professor of organization design at the University of Southern Denmark and has an extensive publication record specializing in evolutionary dynamics and adaptive organizations.

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Read an Excerpt

Darwin's Conjecture

The Search for General Principles of Social and Economic Evolution

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2010 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-34690-8

Chapter One

Introduction: The Challenge of Darwinism for the Social Sciences

Nothing I have said is intrinsically a matter of biological analogy, it is a matter of evolutionary logic. Evolutionary theory is a manner of reasoning in its own right quite independently of the use made of it by biologists. They simply got there first.


Empirical evidence is usually too malleable to be very decisive in conceptual revolutions.... Initial acceptance of fundamentally new ideas leans more heavily on the increased coherence which the view brings to our general world picture.

DAVID L. HULL, (1978)

Darwinian ideas are widely celebrated in biology. But human society also evolves. Could Darwinian principles also apply to the evolution of social entities? Just as organisms compete for scarce resources, businesses, states, and other organizations do likewise. They adapt and change. Some fail; others prosper. Organizations learn and pass on information. Are these not broadly Darwinian processes?

Several thinkers have suggested that social evolution could be partly understood in Darwinian terms. But a full and systematic account has so far been lacking. Elucidation of the Darwinian conceptual framework is one of the most important unfulfilled promises on the agenda of institutional and evolutionary economics. It is our aim to move this project forward and to help stimulate its further development.

Darwin's theory has been battered but never beaten. For much of the twentieth century, talk of applying Darwinism in the social sciences was curtailed. Even today, many social scientists approach Darwinism with trepidation. Writers have held that, while Darwinism is important in biology, it does not apply to human society. This book takes a different view. It explains how Darwinian principles also apply to social evolution and why prominent objections to their use are unwarranted. This chapter looks at the historical background to generalizing the Darwinian approach and provides an outline of the book as a whole.

While the advantages of a unifying evolutionary theory should be obvious, there are reasons to be cautious about an approach that spans social and biological evolution. The most important relates to the legacy of reckless generalization and oversimplification in the social sciences. Perhaps because of "physics envy" (Mirowski 1989), economists have been inclined to search for the scientific Holy Grail of explanation in terms of a few general concepts and equations. Incautious enthusiasm for such catchall concepts as utility maximization and transaction costs is evidence of this tendency. The problem with overgeneralized explanations is that they become all-embracing and impossible to falsify and lead to a neglect of vital differences of context and detail.

One of us has written a full-scale account of how economics and sociology were diverted from historical and cultural specificities in their search for a unifying grand theory of everything (Hodgson 2001a). Does the idea of generalizing Darwinian principles not fall into the same trap? Should social scientists forget such an ambitious idea and, instead, dig deep into empirical detail?

As explained elsewhere (Hodgson 2001a), the dangers of reckless overgeneralization do not mean that generalizations should be avoided when they are appropriate. Indeed, to some extent, general frameworks and principles are unavoidable. Without classifications and communalities, no empirical work would be possible. Good theoretical frameworks are precursors to appropriate empirical classification. Theories in the social sciences should embrace appropriate generalizations without neglecting important specificities of detail and context. We require guiding theories that are sensitive to historical and other specificities.

There have been many attempts to establish general theories or frameworks in the social sciences. Prominent among these is the Walrasian theory of general economic equilibrium (Walras 1874; Arrow and Debreu 1954). But among the deficiencies of this approach are its limited treatments of interactions between agents and of the dynamic phenomena of individual learning and development. General equilibrium analysis does not capture the innovativeness and restlessness of modern economies (Nelson and Winter 1982; Metcalfe 1998; Beinhocker 2006). Another approach that claims to offer an alternative general framework is game theory (Gintis 2007), but questions have been raised about its strong assumptions concerning information and rationality and its capacity to embrace novelty and complex phenomena (Kirman 1993, 2005; Bicchieri 1994; Hargreaves Heap and Varoufakis 1995; Hodgson 2007a).

Like the social sciences, biology addresses systems of immense complexity. Specificities are vital, but that does not mean that general principles cannot be established. Darwinism is a model here. It can neither explain nor predict everything. Instead, it provides an overarching theoretical framework in which explanations of specificities and contingencies must be placed. This involves theorizing on multiple levels (Hodgson 2001a, chap. 21). A grand theory of this type is necessary to organize the empirical quest and to accommodate all the differences of specific mechanism and detail. The pursuit of this type of grand theory, far from abandoning empirical material, gives it full scope and power.

We suggest that generalized Darwinism could become the backbone of a unified evolutionary framework for the social and behavioral sciences. Many of the details must await further research, and at this stage we can provide only a limited number of empirical illustrations. The main contribution of this volume is to clarify the conceptual framework, to probe its potential, and to prepare the ground for this venture. Long overdue in the Age of Darwin, its time has now come.


On his mission to explain evolution, Charles Darwin gathered masses of empirical material. His theory of evolution was not the result of armchair introspection but the outcome of a theoretically guided and persistent interrogation of the facts. Although aspects of his argument can be modeled mathematically and we have powerful formulations such as the Price Equation, Darwinian evolution cannot be modeled fully with simple and universal equations akin to those in physics.

Darwin's classic 1859 On the Origin of Species became the foundation of modern evolutionary biology. His ideas attracted much attention because of their suggestion that humankind was not of divine origin but descended from apes. But this proposition was neither original nor his major achievement. Indeed, Darwin postponed discussion of human evolution to the 1871 Descent of Man. Instead, his supreme triumph was to propose connected mechanisms of evolution that relied on materialist causes and effects, rather than regarding evolution as a product of design or as some mysteriously predestined process toward improvement or perfection. In short, Darwin advanced evolutionary science by building a theory in which cause and effect both have material substance and are subject to scientific inquiry. His triumph was to create a theoretical framework to help explain the causal processes of the evolution of astoundingly complex phenomena with recourse to neither predestination nor design.

Darwin often expressed ignorance about the detailed mechanisms involved, and several of his speculations at this level have proved wrong. He knew nothing about genes or DNA, and their discovery, as well as the crucial fusion of Darwinian theory with Mendelian genetics, had to wait until the twentieth century. Nevertheless, he laid out the core, overarching principles of variation, inheritance, and selection that are now recognized as essential to the understanding of the evolution of species and the complex marvels of nature.

This scientific triumph was quite different from others, such as in physics. With Newton's laws of motion, for example, it is possible to predict with impressive degrees of accuracy the motions of the planets or the journey of a space vehicle to the moon. No such precise predictions are possible with Darwin's theory. Although some Darwinian biologists have discerned trajectories in evolution, these remain controversial, and the strength in Darwinism lies in its powers of explaining observed facts, rather than predicting any future evolutionary outcome.

Crucially, as Darwin acknowledged, his theory of natural selection is inadequate to explain specific phenomena on its own. This core theory cannot entirely account for the fact, for instance, that some birds have colorful plumage and others are gray or brown. Some auxiliary explanations are required to explain these divergent outcomes. Darwin himself pointed to these, and some are special cases of his general principle of selection. Bright plumage is explained by the specific mechanism of sexual selection. Duller plumage is explained by the specific advantages of camouflage and the avoidance of predators. These two mechanisms work against each other: bright plumage has the opposite effect to camouflage, and neither is universal. The principle of selection relies on specific auxiliary theories or special cases in order to complete the explanation of the phenomena in question.

Accordingly, the general evolutionary principles of variation, inheritance, and selection do not provide a complete theory in the manner of those of Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein in physics. Instead, Darwin provides an overarching theory, in which other, special assumptions and auxiliary theories must be placed. This theoretical framework is a major stepping-stone for the sciences of evolving, complex phenomena. At the same time, Darwinism obliges us to focus on those detailed mechanisms in order to identify the causal mechanisms or "algorithms" that generate complex outcomes (Dennett 1995). Darwin was one of the first and most profound theorists of complexity.


Given this achievement, the possibility emerges of applying Darwinian ideas to other complex evolving systems, outside biology. Darwin himself left further clues. In The Origin of Species, for example, he briefly considered the possibility that natural selection operates on the elements of language (see Darwin 1859, 422–23). In 1869, the German economist Hugo Thiel sent him his 1868 pamphlet Über landwirtschaftliche Genossenschaften (On agricultural cooperatives). Thiel crudely interpreted Darwin's theory as supporting individual competition in the economic sphere. He did not consider the selection of cooperatives or other firms as entities. In his immediate response, Darwin politely expressed interest in the application of his ideas to "moral and social questions." He wrote modestly: "It did not occur to me formerly that my views could be extended to such widely different and most important subjects" (Darwin 1887, 3:113).

But Darwin had already hinted at the possibility of some such applications in the Origin. In The Descent of Man, he again conjectured that natural selection operates on the elements of language (see Darwin 1871, 1:59–61, 106). Therein, he described attempts by Walter Bagehot to apply Darwinian principles to political evolution as "remarkable" (162n). He also proposed that tribal groups with moral and other propensities that served the common good would be favored by natural selection (162–66). In effect, he suggested that selection could operate on ethical principles. He thus endorsed a version of group selection and hinted at the natural selection of institutions as well as the natural selection of individuals.6 However, these were no more than hints, and Darwin never attempted to apply his ideas systematically to socioeconomic evolution.

Darwin's brief conjecture that his core principles might apply to other evolving systems outside the biological sphere did not imply that explanations of social (or other) phenomena had to be reduced to biological entities. On the contrary, Darwin suggested that the principles of variation, selection, and inheritance have a broader applicability and are not confined to biology. This conjecture was very different from the reductionist proposal that social phenomena can be entirely explained in biological terms.

A few years after the publication of The Origin of Species, several scholars followed Darwin's hints that the principles of selection, variation, and inheritance may have a wider relevance than to biological organisms alone, including to the evolution of human society. We have already mentioned that Bagehot (1872) applied the principles of selection and inheritance to ideas and political institutions. Subsequently, William James (1880) considered the natural selection of ideas in human learning and in the development of science. He was among the first to consider an evolutionary epistemology. James (1880, 441) opened his essay with the observation of a "remarkable parallel ... between the facts of social evolution on the one hand, and of zoölogical evolution as expounded by Mr. Darwin on the other." But his discussion was largely confined to the selection of ideas in the heads of individuals.

Samuel Alexander (1892) and Benjamin Kidd (1894) also wrote on the natural selection of ethical principles. Albeit limited in robustness and scope, their works were exceptional in bringing the Darwinian principle of selection into the social domain and considering units of selection other than individuals alone. These early precedents show that the idea of generalizing Darwinism to other evolving systems, outside biology and including human society, was taken on board by a number of influential thinkers from the 1870s to the 1890s.

While several writers believed that Darwinian principles could be applied to social phenomena, they applied them loosely and incompletely. Hence, Bagehot's emphasis was broadly on the struggle between nations, not on a process of selection involving well-specified additional social units or structures. He considered the role of imitation and the "cake of custom" but did not identify particular institutions as units of selection. Similarly, Sidney Webb (1889, 53) insisted that "the units selected are not individuals but societies." But he was also unclear of the mechanisms of selection, other than to allude to the competitive struggle between nations for access to raw materials and for supremacy in world markets.

Kidd (1894, 43) suggested a process whereby the selection of human "societies" was driven by "the survivals of the fittest." But he did not clearly establish any notion that social structures were themselves subject to selection processes. In the same year, Henry Drummond (1894) saw Darwinian evolution in human society, but he did not examine the selection process in more detail. These writers failed to consider the natural selection of social structures or institutions or to address the problems involved in establishing levels of selection above the individual human actor. When they applied Darwinian selection, it was loosely to individuals or collections of individuals. In seeing individuals as units of selection, it was widely accepted that the selected traits might also be conducive to the harmony and the survival of groups or nations. But this did not establish a viable concept of selection at the group level or higher.

Accordingly, these early extensions of Darwinian principles to social evolution failed to establish the social units of replication and selection, other than to refer imprecisely to societies or groups. It was not explained why human social evolution involved anything more than the selection of individuals. After all, the selection advantage of one group over another may result simply from the selection advantages of the members of the more adapted group. In this case, group (or social) selection amounts to nothing more than individual selection. Without a supplementary explanation, such notions of social evolution dissolve into simply the evolution and selection of human individuals.

Several prominent accounts in the 1890s of Darwinian evolution in human society shared this limitation. The then prominent analyses of Otto Ammon (1895), Georges Vacher de Lapouge (1896, 1897), and Carlos Closson (1896a, 1896b) addressed individual selection, not the selection of social units. The writings of Ammon and Lapouge were preoccupied with explanations of social phenomena in terms of the alleged racial characteristics of individuals. Even when Lapouge and Closson emphasized the term social selection, they meant the selection of ethnically defined individuals in the context of their social environment.

For these and many other writers at that time, the quality of human civilization depended principally on the biologically determined capacities of the human individuals within it. Accordingly, the prominent thinker Alfred Marshall (1923, 260) could write: "Economic institutions are the products of human nature and cannot change much faster than human nature changes."


In the 1890s, and independently of each other, two writers first clearly formulated the notion that there were social units of selection, irreducible to individuals, to which Darwinian principles might apply. The first of these was the Scottish philosopher David George Ritchie. Like Alexander—with whom he corresponded—Ritchie saw that Darwinian selection could be applied to the evolution of ethical ideas. But he went further than that.

In Darwinism and Politics (1889), Ritchie held that, in human societies, "language and social institutions make it possible to transmit experience quite independently of the continuity of race." In other words, cultural transmission functioned alongside, and in addition to, what today we describe as genetic inheritance. Ritchie argued: "An individual or a nation may do more for mankind by handing on ideas and a great example than by leaving numerous offspring" (59). This is a far-reaching claim.


Excerpted from Darwin's Conjecture by GEOFFREY M. HODGSON THORBJØRN KNUDSEN Copyright © 2010 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents



Chapter One Introduction: The Challenge of Darwinism for the Social Sciences 1

Chapter Two Generalizing Darwinism 30

Chapter Three Rivals and Rebuttals 47

Chapter Four The Lamarckian Confusion 61

Chapter Five The Principle of Selection and Its Application to Social Evolution 89

Chapter Six Information, Complexity, and Generative Replication 112

Chapter Seven From Group Selection to Organizational Interactors 151

Chapter Eight Major Information Transitions in Social Evolution 180

Chapter Nine Conclusions and Agenda for Future Research 222

Glossary 237

References 243

Index 277

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