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Social Darwinism: Linking Evolutionary Thought to Social Theory

Peter Dickens
Open University Press: Buckingham
2000
0335202187 (pb); 0335202195 (hb)
11.99 (pb); 42.50 (hb)
viii + 130

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The different roles which evolution could play in shaping the social world have been unduly neglected by sociologists. This neglect is evident at both a conceptual and empirical level. It is therefore encouraging to see a non-specialist (and relatively cheap) book in a popular series (Concepts in the Social Sciences) which provides a useful discussion of the subject.

Within a relatively brief space (130 pages), the author manages clear and well referenced discussions of a large number of different ways in which evolutionary ideas have been used in social scientific explanation. As well as relatively hoary topics evolutionary aspects of the theories of Herbert Spencer and Talcott Parsons the author provides useful discussions of fields likely to be much less well known to sociologists, for example, memetics and evolutionary simulation in economics. Presentation of these diverse approaches has a cumulative effect in helping the reader to understand the typology of ways in which evolution and social action might interact. Some theories (like sociobiology) are reductionist "social" behaviour is actually genetically determined. Other theories (like those of Spencer and perhaps Parsons) are Social Darwinist non-evolved social behaviour nonetheless conduces to group or individual reproductive success and survival. Yet other theories respect the autonomy of the social sphere and seek to understand social change in terms of analogies with biological evolution rather than as a mere side effect of genetics. Dickens also draws attention to some persistent misapprehensions in the social application of evolutionary ideas, in particular the belief that evolution is directed, purposeful and progressive.

It would not be fair to the author, tackling such a difficult and diverse topic in such a short space, to criticise him for failing in a task he did not attempt. My two main reservations can both be regarded as conditional on a correct reading of the author's objectives. Treating the book as a historical description of previous research, with a deliberate minimum of analytical discussion and theorising, there is still too much ambiguity about the relationships between different theories and the critiques which can appropriately be applied to them. Darwin (a biologist) and Spencer (a sociologist) are often bracketed together when there are fundamental differences in their methods, objectives and present day status. Although Dickens is quite right to criticise attributions of teleology, he fails to make adequately clear that many more recent theories based on evolutionary ideas have simply grown out of these weaknesses. Even if the author sees his role as purely descriptive, I think the book needs a better conceptual framework so that the overall progression in evolutionary approaches is recognised. (If nothing else, the book neglects the very important fact that evolutionary biology has developed dramatically over the period under discussion. One of Darwin's extraordinary achievements was to develop a coherent theory in advance of any systematic understanding of mechanisms of genetics and heritability.)

Taken not as a descriptive work, but a contribution to the development of evolutionary ideas in social explanation, the book also displays some weaknesses. (It may be that a more systematic conceptual framework would have helped in this regard too.) The author makes it fairly clear that he regards Marx as an important source of ideas for a relevant evolutionary theory. Unfortunately, he fails to support this contention very convincingly and often dismisses non-Marxist analyses with less charity than they deserve. It can certainly be said that the book discusses some neglected features of evolutionary ideas in a thoughtful way, but not that it presents anything like a theory of social evolution. (In several areas, computer simulation is now being used to develop models of social evolutionary processes where all assumptions must be made explicit. Despite their excessive simplicity at present, they do point up the difficulty of comparing and combining verbal theories. It is very hard to decide whether Dickens, Marx, Spencer or Parsons has the most "complete" theory, let alone the "best". It is even hard to decide how to decide come to that!)

As a researcher in the field, already familiar with the literature, these weaknesses made me regret that the book was not better. It may be the case that the absence of a more systematic conceptual framework will also make the book harder to read as an introduction to the field. Nonetheless, it is still an impressive attempt to discuss ideas that are both neglected and interesting. I hope it will be widely read and given the careful consideration it deserves.

Edmund Chattoe
University of Oxford

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