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Applying Darwin's ideas to culture and society

by Phil Bartle, PhD

Training Handout

Not only survival but growth and expansion of the most fit

Charles Darwin, the person responsible for the notion of evolution, is still reviled today by creationists who believe that the bible tells them that God created the universe completely as it is rather than letting it grow and develop. They appear to think that God was too inept or stupid to create evolution. For us, we will not enter into the debate, but limit ourselves to what we can observe rather than what people believe.

In our search for understanding of social change, it is useful to take the ideas of Darwin, and see how many of them apply to society and culture.

Whereas a mobiliser tries to influence the direction of social change, evolution implies that the successful perpetration of introductions depend upon their survival and usefulness in allowing the social institution to survive and reproduce itself, a far cry from planned change.

Darwin was focusing on living things, plants and animals, when he developed the notion of evolution.  It is based on the idea that living things do change for various reasons, but only those which allow the organism to survive and reproduce will continue on, and only those changes that bring a definite advantage to the organisation can allow it to increase its population size.  He did not examine how changes came about, but we think of them mostly as mutations, which are random and unpredictable.

So can that approach apply to things that do not reproduce by genes?  To society and culture?

It appears so.  Social structures and institutions help Homo Sapiens to survive and expand.  Even after their usefulness has finished, they may live on, until they become something that hinders reproduction.  New institutions that appear, and changes in existing institutions, will continue so long as they do not result in the inability of the group to reproduce.

Some new social institutions or patterns of interaction help culture and its human carriers to compete better and reproduce more successfully.  In this way, where symbols rather than genes are transmitted, Darwin’s principles of evolution may apply to the evolution of society and culture.

In this comparison, then, perhaps deviance may be compared with a mutation.  If the deviation serves no social purpose, it is not reproduced.  If the deviation improves the chances of a group of humans to survive or to compete, then it will be carried on.

We must be careful, however, not to mix biological and cultural.  If we are talking about cultural evolution then we are talking about symbols and interaction, whereas if we are talking about biological evolution then we are talking about genes.

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Last update: 2012.07.11

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