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The Impact of Darwin's Theory of Evolution on the humanities and social sciences

By Liu Chunxing | 2013-07-25 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Since The Origin of Species was published in 1859, Darwin’s Theory of Evolution has been gradually accepted in biology and even the whole community of natural sciences. Its impact on humanities and social sciences has been tremendous and continues to increase, engendering various studies in evolutionary social sciences.
The Theory of Evolution has gained significant traction among philosophers, as can be seen from such hybrid fields as evolutionary epistemology, evolutionary ethics and evolutionary aesthetics. Represented by Karl R. Popper, Donald T. Campbell and Gehard Vollmer, evolutionary epistemology asserts that the knowledge possessed by human beings forms a significant tool for their survival thriving as organisms. The origin of evolutionary ethics, in which the origin, nature and function of morality are interpreted from the perspective of the Theory of Evolution, dates back to almost the same time as the publication of The Origins of Species. Ethical values, such as virtue, justice, and fairness, are derived from man’s nature and evolution; all the organic structures, psychological mechanisms and cultural traditions that are related to a species’ survival and reproduction are viewed through a lense of ethical significance. Its advocates include Herbert Spencer, Thomas Huxley and Peter Kropotkin.
Among the various fields in evolutionary social sciences, the paradigm of evolution has seen more robust application in economics, psychology and anthropology; among these, evolutionary economics has undergone the most rapid development and now holds a dominant position in economics. Articles in evolutionary economics are often published in top academic journals in economics such as The American Economic Review. The core idea of evolutionary psychology is that human psychology is the product of evolution, and the past experience is pivotal in understanding its inner workings. While there has been no lack of criticism of and even ridicule upon the evolutionary paradigm in psychology, its influence has been gaining strength. Applying this paradigm, some experts have even tried to integrate the branches in psychology, such as cognitive psychology, social psychology, personality psychology and developmental psychology. As an independent discipline, anthropology was closely connected to the Theory of Evolution from the very beginning. Edward Burnett Tylor and Lewis Morgan were both committed cultural evolutionists. Although evolutionary anthropology was overshadowed by Franz Boas’ functionalism for a half century, it was revived after the Second World War with Leslie White and Elman R. Service, among others.
Sociologists have always been a bit more restrained in their application of the Theory of Evolution. Though the idea of social evolution first appeared in the early 19th century, many sociologists avoided the concept, as “social Darwinism” became denigrated. However, if “progress” is not necessarily included in the connotation of evolution, sociologists by large would not deny the fact of social evolution. In fact, before the publication of The Origin of Species, simple evolutionary thought had existed in the West, represented by Herbert Spencer. The impact of the Theory of Evolution on politics is the most obvious in international politics. The origins of warfare between states, the formation of the international order, and the evolutionary processes of international power are the heated topics in evolutionary politics. In law, the evolutionary paradigm was invoked in various evolutionary theories of law emerging from the end of the 19th century; currently the emphasis has been shifted to its application in specific research problems in law. While the influence of evolutionary paradigm on law cannot be neglected, it has not started a school or movement comparable to that of natural law, empirical law or sociological jurisprudence.
The Theory of Evolution has undoubtedly exerted influence on almost all the disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. The process, however, has not always gone on smoothly. At the early stage of its dissemination, the Theory of Evolution was applied mechanically to humanities and social sciences by many who then drew strained or even ridiculous conclusions. Some with preconceived agendas or outright ill intentions purposely distorted and made use of the theory, creating doctrines such as Lebensraum, or others premised on racial superiority. The secularized and malevolent application of it made the originally neutral social Darwinism hideous. In spite of this, committed evolutionary biologists and social scientists have never ceased their research. Their hard work was finally rewarded with the flourishing of the evolutionary paradigm in humanities and social sciences following the mid-20th century.
While it was praised by Friedrich Engels as one of the greatest three discoveries in the natural sciences of the 19th century, Darwin’s Theory of Evolution merely considers the evolution of species. In fact, to foster complete understanding of human activities, research should be done on at least three levels: the biological level, the social level and the cultural level. Ever since the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, experts in genetics, animal behavior, behavioral ecology and evolutionary anthropology have conducted fruitful research on the social structure, social behavior, evolution of behavior and cultural phenomena of animals (including human beings). This research has initiated a bridging of the theoretical gap between studies on human beings and other animals, in turn enabling the evolutionary paradigm to explain human activities comprehensively on all the three levels, laying a solid foundation for its wide application in humanities and social sciences.
Liu Chunxing is doing post-doctoral research in biology at Beijing Forestry University.
The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 422, Mar 4, 2013.
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Translated by Jiang Hong
Revised by Charles Horne

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