Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Against "Selection Theory"

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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