Fukuyama's evolution problem

I haven’t read Francis Fukuyama’s most recent book, but I like this point made by John Gray in a TNR review.

THE NOTION THAT ONLY one type of government can in the future be legitimate is as far-fetched as the idea that history has literally come to a halt. To be sure, it is not a thesis that can be falsified, since it is not really an empirical claim. In The Origins of Political Order, Fukuyama is explicit that he is applying evolutionary theory, declaring that “the overall framework for understanding political development presented here bears many resemblances to biological evolution.” He acknowledges that there are “many important differences between biological and political evolution: human institutions are subject to deliberate design and choice, unlike genes; they are transmitted across time culturally rather than genetically: and they are invested with intrinsic value through a variety of social and psychological mechanisms, which makes them hard to change.” That is all very good, but it misses the main point about Darwinian evolution, which is that it is a process of drift, with no purpose or direction. If the development of human society is an evolutionary process, it is one that is going nowhere in particular. Actually, the idea of social evolution is not much more than an ill-chosen metaphor. As refined by later scientists, Darwin’s theory posits the natural selection of random genetic mutations. In contrast—despite all the fashionable chatter about memes—no one has come up with a unit of selection or a mechanism through which evolution operates in society. Judged by the standards of science, theories of social evolution are not theories at all.

This reminds me of an idea I encountered in college that sticks with me far better than most. The sociologist Georgi Derluguian taught two of three quarters of a required sequence for international studies majors, “Introduction to World Systems.” At the time, I didn’t know just how marginal the Immanuel Wallerstein school of historical sociology seems to many thinkers. (I stay out of this debate, myself.)

All quibbles with Wallerstein aside, Derluguian left a deep impression that I’ve stuck to through much later reading. Teleology in social analysis, the conviction that human events happen on a unilinear path toward some more developed state, represents what he called “steamrolling the copious bush of life.” Evolution is a good metaphor for social and institutional change precisely because it is non-linear.

This, he said, was a point taken from Stephen Jay Gould, the evolutionary scientist famous for writing in a way that can be understood by mere mortals. (As it happens, a search for “copious bush of life” gives us Derluguian’s book.)

It’s unfortunate, I think, that this kind of thinking is marginal in U.S. social science. More attention should be paid to the problematic metaphor of “science” in studying society. If only the study of “history” would allow a more thorough consideration of the present and very recent past.


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