Generalized Darwinism

Some cultural evolutionary scholars have made a distinction between biological and cultural evolutionary systems, and argue that a higher-level, abstracted set of Darwinian principles might apply to both these systems. In generalizing Darwinian principles beyond biology some amongst this group of scholars have adopted what is termed Generalized Darwinist (or sometimes Universal Darwinist) approach to study socio-cultural change. Generalized Darwinists maintain that Darwinian concepts can be broadened from the domain of biology and applied to all forms and levels of life. In the biological world, evolution occurs over time through the key Darwinian mechanisms of variation (of genotypes), selection (of the associated phenotype)and retention (of the underlying genotype), where genotype is broadly defined as the material inherited from its parents (i.e. genes), which has the potential to be transmitted to future generations. The phenotype on the other hand represents the developmental expression of that genotype, though the physical characteristics of the organism. Generalized Darwinists argue that at a sufficiently general level of abstraction this core set of general Darwinian principles of variation, selection and retention can be used to describe evolution within a variety of domains,including biology, psychology, culture and economics (Breslin, 2010).
Generalized Darwinists substitute the concept of replicator-interactor for the genotype-phenotype used in biology. In the Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins introduced the idea of memes as replicator in cultural evolution, where the meme is defined as a self-replicating element of culture,passed on by imitation, such as behaviors or skills. In the study of organizational evolution, researchers have instead adopted the routine as their replicator. In studies of technological evolution, researchers have put forward the artefact, idea and technique as the replicator. Interactors are defined as entities that interact as a cohesive whole with their environment in a way that causes differential replication of these elements.

Recommended Readings

Aldrich et al. (2008). In Defence of Generalized Darwinism. Journal of Evolutionary Economics, Vol. 18, pp. 577-596

This article brings together leading researchers in economics and organization studies to present an overview of the Generalized Darwinian project. Some of the key criticisms against the approach are addressed.
Breslin, D. (2011). Reviewing a Generalized Darwinist Approach to Studying Socio-Economic Change. International Journal of Management Reviews, Vol. 13, No. 2, pp. 218-235

This paper presents a review of Generalized Darwinist research in economics and organization studies. The paper focuses on the details of key critics, and future conceptual and empirical challenges facing the approach.

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