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Keywords:

  • cultural evolution;
  • Darwinism;
  • development;
  • macroevolution;
  • microevolution;
  • neo-Darwinism;
  • systems theory

ABSTRACT

In his thought-provoking book, Alex Mesoudi argues for an evolutionary, unifying framework for the social sciences, which is based on the principles of Darwinian theory. Mesoudi maintains that cultural change can be illuminated by using the genotype-phenotype distinction, and that it is sufficiently similar to biological change to warrant a theory of culture-change based on evolutionary models. He describes examples of cultural microevolution, within-population changes, and the biologically inspired population genetics models used to study them. He also shows that some aspects of large-scale (macro-evolutionary) cultural transformation can be studied by using ecological models and phylogenetic comparative techniques. We argue that although Mesoudi's evolution-based perspective offers many useful insights, his ambition—the unification of the social sciences within a Darwinian framework through the use of the methods and models he describes—suffers from a major theoretical limitation. His reductive approach leads to overlooking culture as a system with emergent processes and features. Mesoudi therefore does not engage with any of the central past and present theories in sociology and anthropology for which the systems view of culture is central, and he does not analyze the emergent, high-level properties of human cultural-social systems. We suggest that a systems perspective, using some analogies and metaphors from developmental biology, can complement the evolutionary approach and is more in tune with a systems view of society. Such an approach, which stresses feedback and self-sustaining interactions within social networks, and engages with the insights of sociological and anthropological theories, can contribute to the understanding of cultural systems by highlighting the evolution of processes of social cohesion, and by making use of the mathematical approaches of complexity theory.