M. Hodgson & Thorbjørn Knudsen, Darwin’s Conjecture: The Search for General Principles of Social & Economic Evolution

Darwin’s Conjecture: The Search for General Principles of Social & Economic Evolution, Geoffrey M. Hodgson & Thorbjørn Knudsen (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2010)


1. As is common knowledge, Darwin’s Origin of Species deals more with the transformation of species than with their origin. Furthermore, he clearly recognized that his theory could be applied to all sorts of things, including society and culture. However, efforts to expand the domain of natural selection beyond biology have encountered persistent opposition from social scientists. Geoffrey M. Hodgson & Thorbjørn Knudsen rebut many of the arguments that have been put forth by the opponents of Darwinian approaches to social and economic evolution. They also present a sketch of their version of such a science. The sketch might be viewed as a preliminary draft of a more developed theory, but in this account it seems to function mainly as an effort to show that such an approach is plausible. In addition to skeptics of various sorts, the book might be read with profit by economists interested in biology and biologists interested in economics. Ever since Darwin was influenced by Malthus there have been efforts to unite those two major branches of knowledge. Beginning in the latter half of the twentieth century there have been increasing efforts at interdisciplinary communication and synthesis, often under such rubrics as “bioeconomics” and “evolutionary economics”.

2. As someone who considers himself a bioeconomist, I am fully sympathetic with Hodgson and Knudsen’s goals. As a philosophical biologist, I do have some reservations about the details. Hodgson and Knudsen’s approach is explicitly philosophical. They have two main philosophical goals. The first of these is to analyze and explicate many of the relevant terms and concepts. The second goal, and a related one, is to explain the ontology, or metaphysics, of Darwinism. The fundamental ontological questions that concern them mainly have to do with what the basic units and kinds of things involved in evolution are, and with what roles these units play in evolutionary processes. There has been a lot of loose and misleading talk in such discourse, and Hodgson and Knudsen attempt to come up with better, perhaps more rigorous, definitions of terms. I have two complaints. In the first place, their explications of terms are sometimes more designed to impress the reader, than to enlighten him. And secondly, there is too much of the kind of loose talk that they themselves object to.

3. Consider how they define “selection” (p. 91):

4. Selection involves an anterior set of entities that is somehow being transformed into a posterior set, where all members of the posterior set are sufficiently similar to some members of the anterior set, and where the resulting frequencies of posterior entities are correlated positively and causally with their fitness in the environmental context. The transformation from the anterior to the posterior set is caused by the entities’ interaction within a particular environment.

5. I only note in passing how often they use the vague expression “involves” when defining terms. What I really find objectionable is their use of the term “set” in this context. They continue toward the bottom of the next page: “We regard each anterior set as including and exhausting one universal class of entities, such as a species (a class of organisms) or a population of firms (a class of organizations)”. Here we have a serious ontological mistake. A species is no more a class of organisms than a multicellular organism is a class of cells. Ontologically speaking, species, organisms, and all the other concrete particular things in the universe, are individuals, not classes. A species is a whole composed of organisms, not a kind of organisms. This point is not intuitively obvious, and people have disputed it. That species and other supraorganismal wholes are individuals, not classes, is, however, tacitly presupposed in much of what Hodgson and Knudsen say. Furthermore, the main source of their ontology is derived from the work of the late David Hull. The possibility that species are individuals was occasionally mentioned by a few authors, but it was not until the publication of my paper entitled “A radical solution to the species problem” that biologists and philosophers began to take it seriously (Ghiselin 1974). Shortly thereafter, in a paper in the same journal, entitled “Are species really individuals? ” Hull (1976) endorsed the new ontology. Hodgson and Knudsen cite the latter paper and other works that elaborate upon it.

6. Treating an individual, such as one’s species, one’s nation, or one’s wife, as if it were a set, the members of which are its components, makes the wholes seem like abstractions, rather than the concrete, particular things that they really are. Hodgson and Knudsen rightly, and indeed time and again, complain about the habit of treating wholes as if they were nothing more than their parts.

7. If anything is to participate in a process – not just evolution, but any process whatsoever – it simply must be an individual, not a class. Classes are abstract, and abstractions cannot do anything. So everything that participates in evolution is an individual. But that is a necessary condition, not a sufficient one. As Hull first urged upon us, and as Hodgson and Knudsen obviously agree, the individuals must also be cohesive. In other words, something has to hold them together. In the case of species that something is sex. Just common ancestry won’t suffice, and this is one of the reasons why selection of genera and phyla seems unlikely.

8. Cohesion plays an important role in Hodgson and Knudsen’s distinction between what they call “subset selection” on the one hand, and “successor selection” on the other. Natural communities may contain a fair number of asexual lineages, which may proliferate or go extinct, and undergo a certain amount of change. But they do not form reproductive communities (populations). Species, however, diversify at a genetical level as the result of syngamy, recombination, gene flow, sampling error, and various kinds of selection. It is they that speciate. Repeated speciation gives rise to a genealogical nexus that is represented by tree-like diagrams and by higher taxonomic groups such as genera, families, orders, and phyla, each of which shares a common ancestry. Evolutionary biology, like historical linguistics, is an historical science. Economics might be better off if it took history more seriously.

9. In the aforementioned paper I drew upon an economic analogy to get my point across. I said that species are to evolutionary theory as firms are to economic theory. And I suggested that in both cases there is competition between the parts of the lesser wholes and between the greater wholes as well. The comparison may be useful if perhaps too far-fetched. It does serve to make the point that there may be multi-level selection among all sorts of organized wholes. In this connection I was a bit dismayed to see how a pair of professional economists deal with the concept of competition (p. 89-90). They say (p. 89) “Selection operates in nature through the elimination of the relatively unfit members of each species”. But what about the sex-ratio? Generally it is 1:1 because organisms derive half their ancestry from male ancestors, half from their female ancestors. If one sex becomes less common than the other, there is a scarcity value and parents invest more in offspring of that sex. The “unfit” are not being eliminated: resources are being allocated.

10. Richard Dawkins, in an egregious piece of sophistry, called genes and other things that get replicated “replicators”. The use of the suffix or gave the false impression that these entities replicate, rather than simply getting replicated. Although Hodgson and Knudsen reject the social analogue of genes (“memes”) they go along with the term “replicator”. I guess the damage is irreparable. Some of the harm has been mitigated by Hull’s notion of an interactor. Organisms and supposedly their socio-economic analogues interact with the environment. One trouble is that the entities that get replicated are incorporated as integral parts of the interactors, which, in fact, are the things that are the active agents in the process of replication. Hodgson and Knudsen seem to be moving in that direction, when they talk about what they call “generative replicators”. But I must object to their saying that inheritance is “synonymous” with replication (p. 106, p. 149). Maybe some things have to be replicated if they are to be inherited, but that is not the same phenomenon.

11. Much of the book is devoted to an effort to find replicators and interactors in social systems and cultures. Things like habits and routines are supposedly transmitted socially. I am a bit puzzled by how they chose to differentiate between habits and routines. As they see it, organisms have habits, and social groups have routines. Granted that learning is something of which organisms are capable but societies are not, it makes sense to say that societies do not have habits. But upon what grounds are we to reject the notion that individual organisms have routines? Both habits and routines are advantageous from an economic point of view. Behavior that has become habitual no longer requires so much attention and intellectual effort. One of my good habits is that of brushing my teeth before I go to bed. Brushing my teeth is part of my daily routine, as are reading the morning newspaper and various other activities. Different activities are scheduled for different times of day, much as they may be relegated to different rooms in my home. Having that routine makes my life better organized and more productive. When I am working alone at home, especially if not bothered by the telephone or visitors, the fact that mine is a personal routine seems obvious.

12. But I don’t always work at home. I do much of my work at the California Academy of Sciences. On such days I have a somewhat different routine, one that involves either driving or taking public transportation. When I get there I have a routine as well, which includes checking my mail box. But my personal routine gets coordinated with those of my colleagues, and the organization itself has its routines and sub-routines. Every year, as a matter of routine, we hold a meeting of the Fellows of the Academy.

13. Routines exemplify standardization. The whole may be better off if the parts function in more or less the same way at different times and locations. That is true at both the organismal and the supra-organismal, or social, levels. Indeed, we find it at the levels of the molecule, the cell, and the organ as well. In the case of complicated organizations such as factories, with intricate production processes, it may be very difficult to transfer routines between one such organization and another, as Hodgson and Knudsen point out. Yet once again, something quite general may apply across levels. There are stringent limitations as to what may be transmitted from one species to another. That is one reason why species exist.

14. To make sense of “ideas”, a substantial amount of metaphysical gymnastics is undertaken. I won’t bother to discuss that, except to say that a variety of psychological views might be reconciled with theories of cultural evolution. Picking one of these seems justified as a means of converting the skeptics, but the rest of us might opt for alternatives.

15. There are a couple of ontological claims that I should challenge. One of these is the nature of institutions. These days it is widely maintained that institutions are rules, and that they are not the same thing as organizations. Hodgson and Knudsen (p. 26) say that organizations are institutions. It is hard to imagine something that is organized not following at least some rules. Not being totally disorganized, I follow rules myself, but that does not make me a rule. A similar mistake is confusing the “offices” that a participant in an organization may hold as the same thing as the occupant of the office (Ghiselin 2007). A professor is not the same as an academic chair.

16. In presenting their version of a Darwinized view of society, Hodgson and Knudsen discuss quite a variety of interesting topics. They have no pretensions to presenting a finished system. Indeed they emphasize the point that a lot of work remains to be done. That being the case it seems not inappropriate to suggest a couple of areas where there might be some improvement.

17. Consider their approach to law. Hodgson and Knudsen emphasize the roles of such phenomena as common practices, sanctions, punishment, and authority. I was disappointed in how little attention they pay to the concept of justice. The fundamental law of the United States of America was ordained, not only to assure domestic tranquility, but to establish justice. In a just society, a state is a creation of its citizens, and exists for their benefit. The citizen has duties and responsibilities toward the state, but does not exist for the sake of it. The friends of the established order all too often turn out to be the advocates of despotism. Often they try to treat society as if a society were, or should be, very much like an organism.

18. Hodgson and Knudsen treat the emergence of modern science largely from the point of view of its institutionalization. That should raise serious questions as to what kind of an institution science is, or ought to be. The establishment of organizations that further the advancement of learning, among other things by furthering communication between the participants, has played an important role in the progressive evolution of science as it now exists. And shared routines are obvious features of scientific communities. Yet the system has its drawbacks, not being without its free riders and manipulators of the intellectual marketplace. Although institutions inevitably follow rules, it is nonetheless the work of the creative intellect to discard the old rules and ordain new ones. The division of labor is often accompanied by diminished communication across disciplinary boundaries. Institutions may become resistant to change. The resistance of social scientists to evolutionary thinking about which Hodgson and Knudsen complain so strongly is a common feature of the academic wasteland, wherein academic freedom exists so long as one does not practice it. Perhaps the most sensible thing to do is not to modify the existing institutions, but to create new ones.


  • Assadourian E., 2010, “The Rise and Fall of Consumerist Cultures”, in 2010 State of the World – Transforming Cultures – From Consumerism to Sustainability – A Wordlwatch Inistitute Report on Progress Toward a Sustainable Society.
  • Berlin I., 1969, Four Essays on Liberty, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
  • En ligneCohen G.A., 1989, “On the Currency of Egalitarian Justice”, Ethics, vol. 99, p. 906-944.
  • – 2004, “Expensive Taste Rides Again”, in J. Burley (ed.), Dworkin and his Critics, Oxford, Blackwell.
  • Diener E. et aliiWell-being for Public Policy, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
  • Dworkin R., 2000, Sovereign Virtue, Cambridge (Mass.), Harvard University Press.
  • Easterlin R.A., 1974, “Does Economic Growth Improve the Human Lot?”, in P. David and M. Reder (eds.), Nations and Households in Economic Growth: Essays in Honor of Moses Abramovitz, New York, Academic Press Inc.
  • Frankfurt H., 1988, The Importance of What We Care About, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
  • Frey B. et alii, 2002, Happiness and Economics, Princeton, University Press.
  • Griffin J., 1986, Well-Being, Oxford, Clarendon Press.
  • Hellevik O., 2008, Jakten på den norske lykken, Oslo, Universitetsforlaget.
  • En ligne Kahneman D. and Sugden R., 2005, “Experienced utility as a standard of policy evaluation”, Environmental and Resource Economics, 32, p. 161-181.
  • Lane R., 2000, The Loss of Happiness in Market Economies, New Haven, YUP.
  • Layard R., 2003, “Happiness: Has Social Science a Clue?”, Lionel Robins Memorial Lectures 2002/3.
  • – 2005, Happiness – Lessons From A New Science, London, Penguin Group.
  • Mill J.S., 1859 (1978), On Liberty, Cambridge, Hackett Publishing.
  • Nozick R., 1974, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Oxford, Blackwell.
  • Olson M., 1971, The Logic of Collective Action, Cambridge (Mass.), Harvard University Press.
  • En ligneOswald, 1997, “Happiness and Economic Performance”, Economic Journal, 107, p. 1815-1831.
  • Otterholt T., 2005, Should the State Cultivate Cheaper Tastes?, M. Phil. Thesis, Oxford, online at http://folk.uio.no/torotte/Should_the State_Cultivate_Cheaper_Tastes_Otterholt2005.doc
  • Parfit D., 1984, Reasons and Persons, Oxford, Clarendon Press.
  • Rozati C.S., 2006, “Preference-Formation and the Personal Good”, in S. Olsaretti, Preferences and Well-being, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
  • En ligneStevenson B. and Wolfers S.B., 2008, “Economic Growth and Happiness: Reassessing the Easterlin Paradox”, Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Spring 2008, p. 1-87.
  • Thaler R.H. and Sunstein C.R., “Libertarian Paternalism”, Economic American Review, vol. 93, n° 2, p. 175-179.
  • – 2008, Nudge, New Haven, YUP.
  • Varian H., 1999, Intermediate Economics – A Modern Approach, New York, Norton Inc.