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Darwinian Sociocultural Evolution: Solutions to Dilemmas in Cultural and Social Theory

Blute, Marion
Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2010
ISBN 0521768934 (pb)

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Reviewed by Eva van den Broek
University of Amsterdam, Department of Economics and Econometrics

Cover of book Since Dobzhansky wrote "nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution", evolutionary theory has been stretched beyond the life sciences to fields as diverse as literature studies, political sciences and linguistics. Darwinian sociocultural evolution aims to provide the biological background on sociocultural evolution for a broad category of social scientists. Moreover, as the subtitle Solutions to dilemmas in cultural and social theory reveals, it tries to convey the author's optimistic outlook on how cultural studies may benefit from evolutionary theory.

The author, Marion Blute, is emeritus professor of sociology. This book is the culmination of her experience in communicating across the borders of the life and cultural sciences. Her erudition shows from the rich literature that she draws on: philosophical problems like the tension between the ideal and the material next to biologically sound elaborations on reproduction methods, enlaced with topics as diverse as the juvenile looks of Mickey Mouse, Durkheim and extraterrestrial life.

The book consists of eight chapters, built up around the concepts history, selection, social interaction, memes, agency, subjectivity, complexity and evolutionism. Each chapter introduces the reader to a dilemma in cultural theory and juxtaposes that theme to a set of evolutionary and sociocultural phenomena. Many of the analogies between cultural phenomena and their biological counterpart are thought-provoking. Consider the analogy between research - consumption - and teaching (proliferation) and the influence of 'patchiness' on this environment, or the comparison of drift (random evolutionary walks without selective pressure) to superstition. However, the philosophical dilemmas and the biological concepts illustrating them do not always meet. The scope of social constructivism, whether inheritance in memetics is material or idealistic, or whether agency is forward-looking or backward-looking are questions that can hardly be answered by studying the technicalities of anisogamy (a specific reproduction system) or polypeptide chains.

The book is intended for a broad graduate audience, including social and life scientists, but assumes some rather specific knowledge about current and past sociological debates. I am not sure whether life scientists can appreciate the philosophical dilemmas and Blute's literary style - trained in AI and biology, I felt I missed out on the subtleties. The book may indeed serve for cultural and social scientists as a deepening of the Darwinian view on socio-cultural topics, but would need a more systematic and substantial approach to serve as introduction for them. Chapter and section titles do not always cover the content; analogies between concepts should be made more explicit and subsequently demarcated; the register fluctuates and would need some revision for a next version.

Blute holds that before another century is out, we will see that nothing in the social sciences makes sense except in the light of evolution. After reading this book, a major obstacle to the crossbreeding between the life and the cultural sciences still seems to be the lack of a shared language. Perhaps her ultimate goal, the 'unification of the social sciences themselves within a broadly synthetic socio-cultural evolutionary framework' requires a shared methodology rather than a shared conceptual framework. Blute acknowledges that by pointing to evolutionary linguistics as a promising field for the synthesis of the sciences, but offers few references to computational social models. Yet Darwinian Sociocultural Evolution may contribute to the dialogue between the sciences by inspiring readers to look for allegories beyond their fields.


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