Darwinian social evolution as a theory of social change
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date09/07/2019
Kerr, William Fraser
This thesis investigates the use of a reconceptualised social evolutionary theory for understanding and explaining how and why societies change, specifically looking at this question through the frame of nationalism. The thesis is split into three parts: in the first part I first examine older forms of social evolutionary theory (conceptions from Marx, Spencer and generalized evolutionary accounts) and critique them on the grounds that they are too ‘progressive’ in character, suffer from teleology and have a notion that all societies change linearly, i.e. pass through the same set of stages. After this I elaborate on a reconstructed version of social evolutionary theory, taking it along more Darwinian lines: that the process should be understood as contingent and non-linear, where cultural variants and social intuitions change in response to selective pressures brought about by environmental conditions. To reconstruct social evolution I draw mainly on accounts from Runciman (2009), Hodgson and Knudsen (2010), Sperber (1996), Hull (1988) and Richerson and Boyd (2006). In the second part of the thesis I look at four different theories of social change and utilize Darwinian social evolutionary theory to critique them. The four in question are: Immanuel Wallerstein (world-systems theory); Michael Hechter (rational-choice theory); Michael Mann (sources of social power); and Ernest Gellner (functionalism). These four theories were chosen as they either have, or represent, different theories of social change, and also because they are all concerned to some extent with the rise of the nation-state and nationalism. The main argument in this section is that Darwinian social evolutionary theory can incorporate elements of these theories whilst also going beyond them in explaining and understanding why societies undergo changes. In the case of Mann and Gellner I also note that they are, to a certain extent, implicitly relying on a social evolutionary account, and that drawing this out more explicitly helps provide greater theoretical solidity to their arguments. In the final part of the thesis I apply the theory to two case-studies, looking at the rise of nationalism in Britain (with a focus on England) and Japan. In both cases I examine each development of nationalism historically, using Darwinian social evolution to assess why nationalism emerged at the point that it did in each case, and not before. A final synthesis chapter then looks comparatively at the two cases and applies Darwinian social evolutionary theory to address the question of why nationalism generated in England/Britain, but did not in Japan and why the nationalist movements took the forms that they did. The chapter centres on three main themes, the role of war in forming identities, the role of variation in generating institutions, and the role of lineages in creating continuity in discontinuity. Finally it address the question of why nationalism became the dominant movement and not something else. Together this demonstrates demonstrate the usefulness of the framework for addressing questions concerning social change, in providing a different perspective and insights from other theories of social change. A final chapter summarizes and concludes the thesis, as well as pointing to new directions that research could develop.