Ian Lustick: Commentary on Wilson and Gowdy

By Peter Turchin April 4, 2012 No Comments

Having exceeded the allotted 500 words in my comment on Elinor Ostrom’s paper, I do not want to presume to heavily on the attention of colleagues by writing a long comment on this important paper.  I am essentially in full agreement with the argument, that evolutionary thinking holds immense promise for improving the social sciences.  I have been less fortunate, perhaps, than the authors, who report a more general “open-mindedness” than I have found to these ideas, but I understand that honey may bring more success than a battering ram.

There is, however, one point I would like to make.  One approach evaluated and found wanting by the authors is structural equation based formal modeling.  It just cannot contend with the complexity of the problems presented by study of the social world.  I agree.  But one advantage of that approach; one strong point that it has, is that it can define itself clearly.  What exactly is meant by a structural equation, or game theory, or rational choice, theories, can be and is regularly stated by its practitioners.  I have in this context found it unsettling that evolutionists commonly fail to stipulate their definition of “evolution” or “evolutionary.”  Without doing so, an exhortation to use the “evolutionary tool-kit” can very reasonably be met with skepticism or even bewilderment.  Evolutionary thinking is about explaining change; but certainly not all change is evolutionary.  So what is or are the defining characteristics of “evolution” or an “evolutionary approach?” What rule could be used to determine what tool belongs in an evolutionary tool-kit, and which tools do not?

I recognize that this is a tough problem; a problem some have argued is insoluble.  I think that is a difficult if not impossible position to defend.  So, flawed as it may be, I here offer my own stipulated (and published) definition for consideration by the group. I suggest  that  the  defining  characteristic of evolution  is that  in relation to circumstances  patterns of change observed among units produce subsequent patterns of population change. Whether  the  patterns  of change  observed  at the unit  level entail  mergers,  cooperation, competition by individual  units  against a  general   constraint,   or  competition  of  units,  are  empirical   questions   with possible  theoretical importance, but not ruled  in or out by definition.  Whether the patterns  of change  at the population level are considered gradual  or rapid and  whether  they are regarded as progressive  or undesirable, are, likewise, not questions   of  definition,  but  of  the  time  scale  and  preferences  employed  by the  observer.  Nor does  this  definition  require  a  specific  mechanism (such  as natural  selection) to  be  responsible for  transforming  changes   at  one  unit  of aggregation  into  changed patterns  at another.21  As a definition  should  be,  it is agnostic  with respect  to the  validity of theories  employing  it. It does  suggest, however,  that  interesting  patterns  that  manifest  themselves  historically  at some macro   level  may  be  traced,   in  complex   but  systematic  ways,  to  conditions operating  at much  lower levels of analysis. 

(from Ian S. Lustick, “Taking Evolution Seriously:  Historical Institutionalism and Evolutionary Theory,” Polity (January 2011) pp. 1-31.)

Published On: April 4, 2012

Peter Turchin

Peter Turchin

Curriculum Vitae

Peter Turchin is an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Connecticut who works in the field of historical social science that he and his colleagues call Cliodynamics. His research interests lie at the intersection of social and cultural evolution, historical macrosociology, economic history and cliometrics, mathematical modeling of long-term social processes, and the construction and analysis of historical databases. Currently he investigates a set of broad and interrelated questions. How do human societies evolve? In particular, what processes explain the evolution of ultrasociality—our capacity to cooperate in huge anonymous societies of millions? Why do we see such a staggering degree of inequality in economic performance and effectiveness of governance among nations? Turchin uses the theoretical framework of cultural multilevel selection to address these questions. Currently his main research effort is directed at coordinating the Seshat Databank project, which builds a massive historical database of cultural evolution that will enable us to empirically test theoretical predictions coming from various social evolution theories.

Turchin has published 200 articles in peer-reviewed journals, including a dozen in Nature, Science, and PNAS. His publications are frequently cited and in 2004 he was designated as “Highly cited researcher” by Turchin has authored seven books. His most recent book is Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth (Beresta Books, 2016).

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