Selection in social evolution, part I: A complex picture

In biological evolution, there is only one source of selection pressure: the physical environment. In contrast, in social evolution, there are two sources of selection pressure: the physical environment and human beings themselves. These two sources of selection pressure interact with each other to drive social evolution. Furthermore, because of the coming of ideational forces in social evolution, there are also two different types of selection pressure: material and ideational.

Coupled with the fact that there can be different pairs of gene and phenotype in social evolution (see previously mentioned), selection in social evolution is immensely more complex than that in biological evolution (for an earlier discussion, see Hodgson and Knudsen 2010, Chapter 5).14

More concretely, within any social realm and at any given time, there are multiple types of selection force (e.g., physical or ideational), multiple sources of selection force (e.g., from individual or group, from institution to culture), multiple levels of selection (e.g., individual, group, and overall social system), and multiple modes of selection that operate interactively with each other. As such, there is no ground for a priori dictating how these different selection forces actually operate in the real world. Instead, understanding how they actually operate in the real world requires concrete empirical inquiries.

Natural versus artificial; material versus ideational

Before the coming of humans, the only source of selection pressure in biological evolution was the physical environment. Selection pressure back then thus was exclusively material. Moreover, without human intervention, the physical environment was also entirely natural.

The fact that there are two sources of selection pressure in social evolution fundamentally changes the nature of selection in social evolution. To begin with, even the physical environment—which has been increasingly modified by human activities even before the Industrial Revolution—is no longer purely natural. This artificial, although still physical (or material), environment now shapes the biological evolution of humans and all other species. The artificial breeding of new species by humans is the most evident manifestation of humanity’s impact over the evolution of other species. The coming of global warming represents the most potent manifestation of humanity’s far-reaching impact over the evolution of other species and human beings themselves via modifying the physical environment.

More critically, selection pressure in the ideational dimension of social evolution can be both material and ideational. Material forces still provide the ultimate arbitrator, whether an idea improves human welfare or not. At the same time, ideational forces provide the more immediate selection pressure when it comes to picking what ideas are to be put into practice or to be backed. Moreover, because ideational forces are ultimately powered by human intelligence, they are artificial, to a very large extent. As such, artificial selection rather than natural selection dominates the ideational dimension of social evolution (Commons 1934,45,636—638,657-658),'’ although this artificial selection still has to operate within the constraints dictated by the physical environment. In social evolution, therefore, artificial selection and natural selection are not incompatible forces, as some have insisted (e.g., Hodgson 2002, 266-269; Hodgson and Knudsen 2010, 50-51). Rather, they work together. Certainly, in the ideational dimension of social evolution, artificial selection is a far more prominent force than natural selection (Ritchie 1896; Commons 1934; Hayek 1967,1978).

Hence,Thorstein Veblen (1898); Donald Campbell (1960,1965 [1998], 1974b); and many others (e.g., Richerson and Boyd 2005) were wrong in insisting on a natural selection or Darwinian approach toward social evolution. Hodgson and Knudsen (2010, 50-51) were right to point out that artificial selection does not contradict Darwinian selection, but they were mistaken to dismiss Commons’s critique of Veblen (cf. Ramstad 1994;Vanberg 1997; for a more detailed critique of

Hodgson and Knudsen’s stance on Generalized Darwinism, see Chapter 5). By insisting that all social evolution also strictly follows a (Darwinian) “natural” selection, these authors cannot possibly offer a logically consistent statement of social evolution, especially regarding the ideational dimension of social evolution.

Artificial selection: Both directed and blinded

Unlike biological evolution, in which natural selection is genuinely and completely blind, artificial selection in social evolution is both directed and blinded. This fact is what ultimately makes social evolution only somewhat but never completely teleological.

Artificial selection in social evolution is directed because it is human agents and social forces (e.g., social power, see later) that are the selection forces. Because human agents possess intentionality, they seek to select ideas and expressions based on their reading into the possible impact on their welfare of those ideas and expressions. In other words, human agents, within their capacities, tend to select ideas and expressions that may improve the welfare of the agents. This is most evident in the process of institutional change (Tang 2011a).

Yet, artificial selection in social evolution is also somewhat blinded, or at least, never within the complete control of human agents. As a result, artificial selection in social evolution can never be completely teleological. There are two key facts behind this.

The first is that human agents can never possess complete information about the (future) impact on their welfare of ideas and expressions. In other words, we do not have a crystal ball.

The second fact is that human agents operate within a system—the social system. Within a system, due to the presence of systemic effects, many, if not most, social outcomes are beyond the control of any social agent or even the collective of all the agents (Jervis 1997;Tang 2013a, chap. 5,201 be). Most social outcomes are the unintended, delayed, and indirect products (or consequences) of the designs and actions of any social agent or even the collective of all the agents.

Together, this fact that artificial selection in social evolution is both directed and blinded, aided by the fact that ideational variation in social evolution is both blinded/random and directed/nonrandom, makes social evolution only somewhat, but never, completely teleological.

 
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