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. 

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The books I picked & why

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

Why did I love 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.

By Peter J. Richerson, Robert Boyd,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Not by Genes Alone as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Humans are a striking anomaly in the natural world. While we are similar to other mammals in many ways, our behavior sets us apart. Our unparalleled ability to adapt has allowed us to occupy virtually every habitat on earth, and our societies are larger, more complex, and more cooperative than any other mammal's. In "Not by Genes Alone", Peter J. Richerson and Robert Boyd argue that only a Darwinian theory of cultural evolution can explain these unique characteristics. "Not by Genes Alone" offers a radical interpretation of human evolution, arguing that our ecological dominance and our singular social systems stem…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Daniel Dennett,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Darwin's Dangerous Idea as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life Daniel C. Dennett argues that the theory of evolution can demystify the miracles of life without devaluing our most cherished beliefs.

From the moment it first appeared, Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection has been controversial: misrepresented, abused, denied and fiercely debated. In this powerful defence of Darwin, Daniel C. Dennett explores every aspect of evolutionary thinking to show why it is so fundamental to our existence, and why it affirms - not threatens - our convictions about the meaning of life.

'Essential and pleasurable for any thinking…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Elliot Sober, David Sloan Wilson,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Unto Others as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

No matter what we do, however kind or generous our deeds may seem, a hidden motive of selfishness lurks--or so science has claimed for years. This book, whose publication promises to be a major scientific event, tells us differently. In Unto Others philosopher Elliott Sober and biologist David Sloan Wilson demonstrate once and for all that unselfish behavior is in fact an important feature of both biological and human nature. Their book provides a panoramic view of altruism throughout the animal kingdom--from self-sacrificing parasites to insects that subsume themselves in the superorganism of a colony to the human capacity for…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Robert J. Richards,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

With insight and wit, Robert J. Richards focuses on the development of evolutionary theories of mind and behavior from their first distinct appearance in the eighteenth century to their controversial state today. Particularly important in the nineteenth century were Charles Darwin's ideas about instinct, reason, and morality, which Richards considers against the background of Darwin's personality, training, scientific and cultural concerns, and intellectual community. Many critics have argued that the Darwinian revolution stripped nature of moral purpose and ethically neutered the human animal. Richards contends, however, that Darwin, Herbert Spencer, and their disciples attempted to reanimate moral life, believing that…

Book cover of Darwin Machines and the Nature of Knowledge

Why did I love 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.

By Henry Plotkin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Darwin Machines and the Nature of Knowledge as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Bringing together evolutionary biology, psychology, and philosophy, Henry Plotkin presents a new science of knowledge that traces an unbreakable link between instinct and our ability to know. Since our ability to know our world depends primarily on what we call intelligence, intelligence must be understood as an extension of instinct. The capacity for knowledge is deeply rooted in our biology and, in a special sense, is shared by all living things.

5 book lists we think you will like!

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