The best books on the seismic implications of Darwinism for social science

Geoffrey M. Hodgson Author Of Darwin's Conjecture: The Search for General Principles of Social and Economic Evolution
By Geoffrey M. Hodgson

Who am I?

I have always wondered why people choose and act in particular ways, from heroism and altruism to selfishness and greed. Human society is a kaleidoscope of changing actions and fortunes. Social science tries to explain why. But I was dissatisfied with its answers. Then I discovered writers who used evolutionary ideas to help explain social and economic change. I realized that evolution did not mean reducing everything to biology. I became fascinated by Darwin’s deeper and wider ideas about human society, cooperation, and motivation. I read widely and joined with others of similar mind. It is an exciting and rewarding intellectual landscape to explore. I strongly recommend a long visit.


I wrote...

Darwin's Conjecture: The Search for General Principles of Social and Economic Evolution

By Geoffrey M. Hodgson, Thorbjørn Knudsen,

Book cover of Darwin's Conjecture: The Search for General Principles of Social and Economic Evolution

What is my book about?

Darwin hinted at the possibility of applying his ideas to other complex systems, including language and the evolution of human society. Previous authors have tried to do this. Recent developments in social science, philosophy, and elsewhere have empowered renewed efforts to generalize Darwinian ideas to social and economic evolution. A central problem is to generalize Darwin’s core explanatory principles of variation, selection, and replication so they apply to socio-economic as well as biological phenomena. What are the social units of evolutionary selection? How do they replicate? How and why do they change? The approach outlined in this book does not provide all the answers, but it sets up a framework to enable further and deeper enquiry. Darwinism becomes a meta-theory that guides and inspires research. 

The books I picked & why

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Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution

By Peter J. Richerson, Robert Boyd,

Book cover of Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution

Why this book?

This clearly written and well-researched book shows that human evolution is as much about culture as it is about genes. Both evolve. And both involve the Darwinian principles of variation, selection, and replication of key bits of information. Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson are among the leading contributors to our understanding of how genes and culture co-evolve. The work rebuts exclusively gene-based accounts, and it shows how human evolution operates on multiple levels. Darwinian ideas remain paramount because they provide the over-arching framework in which both genetic and cultural evolution interact and guide human behavior. This book shows how a Darwinian evolutionary approach can rescue the theory of culture in social science from its many vagaries and past wrong turns.


Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life

By Daniel C. Dennett,

Book cover of Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life

Why this book?

This book is brilliant, engaging, riveting, provocative, and controversial. If you can handle all these then there should be nothing to stop you. Its power is its demonstration of how Darwin accomplished a scientific revolution, with his mind-blowing method of explaining the origins and evolution of highly complex systems, that are found in nature and elsewhere. Dennett explains the background and origins of Darwin’s ideas, and why they are so important and original. If you think that Darwinism is just about progression or change, then this book will show you why you are wrong. Dennett shows that Darwinism is about uncovering endless chains of interlinked causal explanation, giving it an algorithmic and processual character. Dennett’s weakness is his inadequate appreciation of the multi-level and emergent character of human social evolution.


Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior

By Elliot Sober, David Sloan Wilson,

Book cover of Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior

Why this book?

In his bestselling book on The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins saw genes as the key drivers of evolution. Dawkins rejected the idea that groups were objects of selection in human evolution. Instead, his focus was on the “selfish” struggle of the gene to survive and replicate. Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson show clearly and convincingly where Dawkins went wrong. In human societies, evolutionary selection operates on multiple levels, including groups and individuals. Human groups are adaptive units. Individuals depend on themselves and on others to survive. Consequently, group adaptations such as altruism, morality, and cooperation can bestow survival advantages for a group, and hence for its individual members, as Darwin himself pointed out. This breakthrough book has stimulated a huge amount of productive research in this area.


Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior

By Robert J. Richards,

Book cover of Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior

Why this book?

I often find well-researched histories of ideas invaluable as quarries for enhanced understanding and intellectual inspiration. This book is an exceptionally useful history of some key Darwinian ideas. Its principal focus is on evolutionary theories of mind, morality, and behavior, which have massive implications for the further development of the social sciences today. Richards sketches the intellectual background of Darwin’s thought in the nineteenth century, showing how he distanced himself from utilitarian approaches to moral and psychological analysis. The contrast with Herbert Spencer is particularly pertinent. But even more so, Darwin’s anti-utilitarianism remains highly relevant today, as much of social science – especially economics – is still dominated by utilitarian ideas. This history of thought defends evolutionary approaches to morality and it is explosive in its implications.


Darwin Machines and the Nature of Knowledge

By Henry Plotkin,

Book cover of Darwin Machines and the Nature of Knowledge

Why this book?

Plotkin’s brilliant book is about the nature and evolution of human knowledge. How do people gain and develop useful knowledge in a complex, uncertain, and changing world? Behaviorist theories of stimulus and response are inadequate. The mind must be primed to deal with complexity and uncertainty. Models from behaviorist psychology are unable to account for the acquisition of knowledge in such circumstances. Darwinian evolutionary theory helps to explain how the mind uses inherited instincts and culturally acquired habits to guide and enhance intelligence. As with the earlier work of the Darwinian psychologist and pragmatist, William James, instinct and habit are the enablers of intelligence, not its impediments. Knowledge is an evolutionary adaptation. This great book reveals more explosive implications of Darwinism for social science.


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