The Prospects and Limitations of Evolutionary Theorizing in the Social Sciences

Authored by: Jonathan H. Turner , Alexandra Maryanski

Handbook on Evolution and Society

Print publication date:  January  2015
Online publication date:  November  2015

Print ISBN: 9781612058146
eBook ISBN: 9781315634203
Adobe ISBN: 9781317258339


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This chapter outlines some of the limits on the uses of biological theorizing in the social sciences. The adoption of biological ideas by social scientists can significantly expand many explanations about the operative dynamics of the social universe, but we nonetheless must remain attuned to the limitations of biological theory when incorporated into social science theorizing. Biological theories cannot replace social science theories, but they can make social science explanations more robust. The limitations of biological theorizing become evident when we ask the following: What does it mean to say that sociocultural systems evolve? What dimensions of the sociocultural universe evolve? What are the units of selection in sociocultural evolution? What is the nature of selection in the sociocultural universe? By answering these questions, it becomes clear that biological concepts become less useful in understanding complex, multilayered sociocultural formations than recent efforts at modeling on the evolution of social systems would suggest. Biological theoretical ideas can be very useful, but they cannot explain a good portion of the properties and dynamics of the social world. The enthusiasm with which many trumpet the coming of biology in the social sciences is, at the very least, overdrawn and, at most, harmful to the social sciences. Hence, it is essential that social scientists recognize the limitations in using biological theorizing for explaining the social universe.

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