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
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?
The philosopher Daniel Dennett has called descent with modification the “best idea anyone ever had.” This may be a little hard on Einstein, but Darwin solved a problem which goes back to Aristotle: how are we to account for qualitative change without having recourse to teleology? Darwin saw that in order to explain how the world has come to be as it is, including the evolution of social behaviour itself, we don’t need to appeal to an antecedent grand design in the form of God, Progress, Destiny or Dialectic. Darwin’s ideas of variation, replication and selection provide the model for a general account of evolution, in which mutations succeed or fail in spreading and perpetuating themselves as a result of the advantage which they confer on their carriers in competition with others in the same environment.
How does this apply to sociology? Consider the following three propositions. First, human beings are organisms descended from one male and one female parent from whom they…