Today a mutant Darwinism increasingly suffuses culture. Generated in academia, it is taken up with uncritical enthusiasm for a wide variety of purposes, ranging from those of the Economist as it offers advice to policymakers to those of novelists seeking framing devices. The compliment is returned by evolutionary biologists such as John Maynard Smith, who draw on Chicagoan economics to apply game theory, optimal resource management and ideas of ‘rational choice’ to animal behaviour. But increasingly, it is variants of evolutionary theory that seek to redraw the boundaries between the biological sciences and the social sciences and humanities. Today there are evolutionary ethics, evolutionary psychiatry and medicine, evolutionary aesthetics, evolutionary economics, evolutionary literary criticism. In his influential 1975 book Sociobiology, ethologist E. O. Wilson proposed that ‘sociology and other social sciences as well as the humanities are the last branches of biology waiting to be included in the Modern Synthesis’. In 1998, in Consilience, he went further, demanding a unitary epistemology and subordinating the social sciences and humanities to the biological and physical.footnote1

Wilson is not alone. Philosopher Daniel Dennett describes Darwinian natural selection as a ‘universal acid’ eating through every aspect of material and intellectual life, in which less fit theories or artefacts are replaced by their fitter descendants. Fellow philosopher David Hull has argued that the history of theories in science can itself be seen as an evolutionary process powered by natural selection. The anthropologists Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd have employed the same argument to describe the changing design of Palaeolithic tools, and embrace Dawkins’s concept of memes as cultural elements analogous to genes.footnote2 W. G. Runciman’s turn to evolutionary theory is more surprising. Unlike some Marxists-turned-evolutionary-psychologists such as Herbert Gintis or Geoffrey Hodgson, who still long for a totalizing determinism, Runciman welcomes Darwin’s evolutionary indeterminism—hence no telos, and no inexorable stages of history.footnote3

Such attempts to transfer the logic of natural selection to other domains betray an ignorance both of debates among biologists over its workings, and of the sociology of scientific knowledge. In what follows we will discuss Darwin in the context of his time, the subsequent and current conflicts within evolutionary theory, and its extrapolation into ‘universal Darwinism’. The framework for our discussion is supplied by the concept of the co-production of science and society. From its birth in the mid-17th century, science assumed an epistemological standpoint outside and above society, receiving cultural authorization to speak the truth about nature. The publication of Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962 marked the beginning of a long process of change in the theory of science. Initially received with hostility by Karl Popper and his school, Kuhn’s liberating influence spread across the history, philosophy and sociology of science. In brief, science was no longer neutral.footnote4 Today science theory sees the boundaries of nature and culture as under constant negotiation, with scientific knowledge as both reflective of, and constitutive of, both culture and society. In this co-production of science and the social order, social institutions, subjectivities, political practices, biological theories and constructs are produced together, with the natural and the social orders mutually sustaining each other.footnote5

Within this framework, Darwinism is better characterized as a metaphor, as Marx was quick to recognize. Writing to Engels some three years after the publication of The Origin of Species, he prefigures the co-productionist thesis:

It is remarkable how Darwin rediscovers, among the beasts and plants, the society of England with its division of labour, competition, opening up of new markets, ‘inventions’ and Malthusian ‘struggle for existence’. It is Hobbes’s bellum omnium contra omnes and is reminiscent of Hegel’s Phenomenology, in which civil society figures as an ‘intellectual animal kingdom’, whereas, in Darwin, the animal kingdom figures as civil society.footnote6

This is not, of course, how mainstream biologists read Darwin’s theory of evolution. They leave out his embrace of capitalist political economy and the passages displaying his sexism and racism, focusing more narrowly on his meticulous study of the natural order and the illumination that the theory casts upon it. And, as humans are part of this natural order, the theory applies to them as well. Setting Darwin in his proper historical context provides a necessary corrective to such views.

The commemoration last year of Darwin’s 200th birthday and the 150th of the publication of The Origin saw the famously modest biologist turned into that very 21st-century phenomenon, the global celebrity. The razzmatazz of the 2009 celebrations was a far cry from the sedate ceremonies marking The Origin’s centenary. Times have indeed changed in the culture of science. Of course, it is not just the culture of science that has been so profoundly transformed over the past decades, but its entire production system. What was both new and all too conspicuous last year was that the scientific community was central—not marginal—to this media circus. The construction of Darwin as the single author of the foundational text for all biology undoes the patient work of historians of science by reverting to a ‘great man’ theory of progress that was thought to be well and truly dead.