From linguistics and psychology to anthropology, social scientists are applying neo-Darwinian insights to explain human behaviour. So why are sociologists resisting the trend? WG Runciman shows how the concepts of variation, replication and selection can help to explain social lifeby W G Runciman / April 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
Published in April 1998 issue of Prospect Magazine
In 1995, I contributed a neo-Darwinian paper to a conference held at the University of Essex to mark the retirement of David Lockwood, the leading British sociologist. The paper, “Social Integration and System Integration in the Theory of Social Selection,” was subsequently submitted at the organisers’ request to the British Sociological Association’s journal Sociology -only to earn me my first rejection from an academic journal for more than 25 years. My immediate reaction was to offer the same journal a carefully revised, unpolemical paper entitled “The Selectionist Paradigm and its Implications for Sociology.” This was accepted as “sophisticated” and “challenging.” My second reaction was to write a book for the general reader called The Social Animal, which was recently launched at the London School of Economics. Although the response to my talk at the LSE was more sympathetic than the one I had received at the Lockwood conference, I came away feeling that, to sociologists and others, the idea of a neo-Darwinian paradigm for sociology remains unconvincing: not because of the unsolved questions which it raises (as indeed it does), but because they simply don’t see how Darwin’s insight about “descent with modification” can be applied to human beings as well as animals. Darwin showed that species evolve through mutations which are genetically transmitted from parents to their offspring; but how can the notions of mutation and selection be applied to animals with minds such as ours?