When will a Darwinian approach be useful for the study of society?

Politics, Philosophy and Economics 16 (3):259-281 (2017)
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Abstract

In recent years, some have claimed that a Darwinian perspective will revolutionize the study of human society and culture. This project is viewed with disdain and suspicion, on the other hand, by many practicing social scientists. This article seeks to clear the air in this heated debate by dissociating two claims that are too often assumed to be inseparable. The first is the ‘ontological’ claim that Darwinian principles apply, at some level of abstraction, to human society and culture. The second is the more ‘pragmatic’ claim that this observation necessitates substantial changes in the practices of social scientists. Even if some version of the first claim is true, I argue – which I believe is quite likely – the second does not follow. This observation ought to chasten the most overzealous advocates of Darwinian social science, as well as softening the instinctive resistance of many social scientists and historians to the genuine insights enabled by a Darwinian approach. The conclusion discusses these insights, the most important of which is a methodological prescription for normative theory.

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Samuel Bagg
University of South Carolina

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