The concept of socio-economic and cultural evolution in the sense of shifting by degrees to a different stage (especially a more advanced or mature stage) has a long history. Hobbes emphasised conflict and competition for resources as an inherent feature of social life and Kant and Hegel were concerned to demonstrate transitions to different states through the triadic process of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Spencer, Comte and Lamarck offered various accounts of social evolution, emphasising the interconnectedness of social elements, but without any causal explanation of social progression and transformation. Darwin’s genius was to provide a causal explanation of evolution in organic systems; that, over time, species evolve through an ongoing process of natural selection whereby traits favouring survival are preserved and unfavourable ones are weeded out.
Darwin’s original (1859) concept of natural selection was developed in the absence of a valid theory of heredity and the ‘modern evolutionary synthesis’, incorporating genetic inheritance, is now the commonly accepted basic paradigm. In this modern synthesis, natural selection is by far the main mechanism of change, such that even slight advantages are important when continued. The object of selection is the phenotype in its surrounding environment, where phenotype is any observable characteristic or trait of an organism, including physiological properties, behaviours and the products of behaviours. Phenotypes result from the expression of an organism’s genes as well as the influence of environmental factors. If the phenotype is the outward, physical manifestation, the genotype by contrast is the internally coded, inheritable information used as a blueprint for building and maintenance and passed from one generation to the next. As Dennett (1995) says, a Darwinian explanation amounts to an algorithm – given a consistent selection process, mechanisms that bring up variations and retain the most fit, then adaptive evolution will take place.
Importantly, the evolutionary process does not necessarily result in optimal solutions or even in outcomes that are better than their predecessors. What results is a fit that is effective and efficient relative to the prevailing environment. There is even the possibility that selection produces an error that is not just determined by chance but introduced through a systematic inaccuracy manifested within the system.
Darwin himself, along with Baldwin and James, considered applying the idea of selection to other, non-biological, domains such as language, psychology and culture, and Veblen (1898) applied it to economics in his pioneering paper, ‘Why is economics not an evolutionary science?’ But the evolutionary approach to socio-economic and cultural evolution was largely sidelined because of the connotations of biological reductionism for eugenics in the social sphere and the problems of stretching biological metaphors and analogies to fit the non-biological.
The concept was revived by Campbell (1969), who suggested that a focus on the underlying process of variation and selective retention could permit the application of evolutionary theory to socio-cultural systems or organisations but without any connotations of ‘social Darwinism’. Dawkins (1983) subsequently coined the term ‘Universal Darwinism’ in an assertion that, in any system given variation, selection and inheritance by whatever means, evolution is likely to occur over time, as entities will accumulate complex traits that favour their reproduction.
In the formulation by Hull (2001), attempting a conceptual clarification of evolutionary theory beyond the sphere of biological selection (Dollimore, 2010), the process is one of repeated cycles of replication, variation and environmental interaction, such that what is replicated is progressively different. The process is summed up in the trilogy of:
- Inheritance: Some number of entities must be capable of producing copies of themselves and those copies must also be capable of reproduction. The new copies must inherit the traits of old ones.
- Variation: There must be a range of different traits in the population of entities, and there must be a mechanism for introducing new variations into the population.
- Selection: Inherited traits must somehow affect the ability of the entities to reproduce themselves, either by survival, or natural selection, or by ability to produce offspring by finding partners, or sexual selection.
Stricter formulations such as required for Generalised Darwinism, sometimes require that variation and selection act on different entities, variation on the replicator (genotype) and selection on the interactor (phenotype). If the entity or organism survives to reproduce, the process restarts.