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.

While noting these developments, critical observers have been somewhat unclear as to the origins and substance of this new social evolutionism. The application to culture and society of a general selection process often elicits immediate, largely unreflective, suspicion. Many critics, not least in these pages, assume that such theories ‘biologize’ the study of super-biotic entities—societies, cultures, detective stories—and denounce the inappropriate application of laws drawn from biotic processes to subjects which resist biological explanation.

Thus Hilary Rose and Steven Rose have described W. G. Runciman and Geoffrey Hodgson as evolutionary psychologists tout court, while Christopher Prendergast suggests that Franco Moretti sails close to social Darwinism in equating market and nature ‘under the aegis of evolutionary biology’.footnote1 But this is largely to miss the point. These authors’ works, and others that will be discussed below, do not involve the inappropriate application of biological categories. They seek to explain historical phenomena not as a manifestation of the natural selection of organisms, but as the variation, selection and retention of autonomous cultural entities. For these thinkers—designated here as ‘non-natural’, or ‘cultural’, selectionists—this is a process autonomous from, though structurally similar to, Darwinian biotic evolution. While the two are not mutually exclusive, they are conceptually distinct.

By seeking to describe historical change in probabilistic terms, cultural selectionists hope for a rigorous, objective and total social science—a science equally applicable to all domains of the social sphere: political, economic, linguistic, spiritual. In this regard, they revive the tradition of the all-encompassing ‘sociology’ founded by Comte in the mid-19th century, or of classic Victorian anthropology. Any account of contemporary cultural-selectionist social science will need to clarify the unifying, defining features of this attempted reorientation of social science—styled a ‘second disenchantment’ by Runciman, following the terminology of Weber’s ‘Science as a Vocation’. An assessment of the intellectual value of the shared enterprise is necessary if we are to take the measure of a social science’s ability accurately to describe its complex subject matter. To this end, the following essay will attempt, firstly, to clarify the intellectual basis for the new wave of cultural selectionism, and then to examine its applications to four key areas: history of religion, sociology of art and literature, study of economic change and general social theory. Subsequently, I will offer a preliminary critical assessment of its programme, conceptual apparatus and overall explanatory value.footnote2

For Darwin the ‘law of natural selection’ was a tendency observed in the natural world in which the representation of certain organisms changed within a sample during some period of time:

The laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance, which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms.footnote3

The make-up of a given set of organisms which reproduce and pass on their characteristics, and which confront varying ‘conditions of life’ and have differing probabilities of survival, can be expected to change over time to reflect a greater proportion of those organisms with higher survival probabilities, more favourably disposed to the conditions of life. In other words, Darwin’s theory of biotic evolution describes the tendency of organisms to survive or persist in accordance with their probabilities of survival; far from advocating a tautological theory—as some have mistakenly characterized it—Darwin was pointing out the relevance of probabilistic tendencies to the development of populations.footnote4