ACADEMICIANS OF LAGADO?
A Critique of Social and Cultural Evolutionism
Titles announcing a coming revolution in the study of cultures and societies have poured from the presses in recent years. A new evolutionary approach promises not only to introduce quantitative rigour and objectivity to social science, but also to gather its disparate elements—psychology, anthropology, sociology, history, economics—into one unified intellectual enterprise. Conferences at major universities, special issues of social-scientific journals, a veritable library of treatises and theoretical outlines announce an impending perspectival shift: in the future, social and cultural change will be understood as resulting from a selective-evolutionary process. The higher peaks of this vast output would include, in economics, Richard Nelson and Sidney Winter’s Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change; in sociology, W. G. Runciman’s Treatise on Social Theory and Theory of Cultural and Social Selection; in anthropology, Pascal Boyer’s study of belief systems, Religion Explained; in comparative literature, Franco Moretti’s Signs Taken for Wonders and Graphs, Maps, Trees. Growing numbers of specialists in the social sciences and humanities have set about reinterpreting their previous work in social-evolutionary terms, or at least speculating on how this might be executed, while citing with approval the research agendas of the social evolutionists. The activities of scholars send reverberations down the intellectual supply chain: public intellectuals champion the approach in the broadsheets; journalists weave references to the concepts into their columns; in due course, airport bookstores flog intellectually diluted popularizations.
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- Franco Moretti: Graphs, Maps, Trees - 3 After ‘graphs’ and ‘maps’, trees: can evolutionary theory help pattern the transformation of cultural forms and divergence of genres, through time and space? Franco Moretti’s final essay on abstract models for literary history.
- Christopher Prendergast: Evolution and Literary History A landmark engagement with Franco Moretti’s triptych of essays, Graphs, Maps, Trees. What forms of logic underpin the use of evolutionary models to lay bare the survival strategies of the detective story, or trace the mutations of a border-hopping stylistic technique? And what political implications follow from basing an account of literary history on the outcome of the market?
- Steven Rose, Hilary Rose: Darwin and After A century and a half on from Origin of Species, what is the present state of evolutionary theory? Hilary Rose and Steven Rose examine current debates around epigenesis, ‘evo-devo’ and adaptation, emphasizing—contra the determinists—contingency’s role in biological outcomes.