• Professor Geoff Hodgson London School of Economics


In biological evolution Lamarckism involves the inheritance of acquired characteristics by an organism’s descendants. Most modern biologists point to the genes as the only determinants of what the characteristics of an organism might be, and to natural selection as the only source of change. In human social evolution it appears that our ideas and practices are also passed on to our children. Could there be a unit of cultural inheritance which is subject to selective pressure? Or are the ways in which information is transferred too diverse for us to describe? Perhaps some version of Lamarckism in the social sphere can be consistent with Darwinism in the biological. Perhaps ‘universal Darwinism’ as a version of Darwinism without a specific hereditary unit can provide a solution. If social and biotic evolution are special cases of a more general theory of complex system evolution, then this version of Darwinism may prove more powerful than one based on Lamarckism which offers much less explanatory value.


  1. Geoff Hodgson's presentation on 'Is Social Evolution Lamarckian or Darwinian?': GeoffHodgsonSGLamarck-Darwin.ppt
  2. Book chapter in Laurent, John and Nightingale, John (eds) (2001) Darwinism and Evolutionary Economics (Cheltenham - Edward Elgar), pp. 87-118.'Is Social Evolution Lamarckian or Darwinian?': Geoffrey_Hodgson_on_Social_Evolution.pdf
  3. Ormerod,P., Smith,L., 2001. Power Law Distribution of Lifespans of Large Firms - Breakdown of Scaling: PowerLawOmerod&Smith.pdf

Discussion Group Notes On ‘Is Social Evolution Lamarckian or Darwinian?

Table of Contents

The following notes were compiled For The L.S.E. by Geoffrey J.C. Higgs 25/4/01.


The fact that giraffes may keep stretching up to reach the high branches of trees is not taken by mainstream biologists as the reason for them having long necks. It is when the ‘instructions’ in their genes just happen to give this advantageous characteristic that long necks result because access to the food source is that much greater. That’s Darwinism crudely put. On the other hand human cultural or social evolution does seem Lamarckistic in that we inherit our politics and religions and ways of doing things from our forefathers and mothers and then we change them and modify them to suit present circumstances and pass them on in their changed form to our children. Life is a complex system and all that that implies and so, derivatively is the human social system. Can we devise a theory that reconciles Darwinism and Lamarckism and makes biological and human social evolution special cases of the same?

Definitions of Darwinism and Lamarckism

Darwinism as held by biologists today, is a causal theory explaining how the process of biological evolution occurs. It involves the inheritance of genotypic instructions by individual organisms, variation of these and a selection pressure on the consequent phenotypes according to their fitness in the environment.
Lamarckism postulates that evolutionary change occurs through individuals striving to adapt to the environment and particular patterns of behaviour being passed on to descendants. A more extreme version would admit the possibility that acquired phenotypic characters in individuals are passed on in the genotypic inheritance of subsequent generations.
Neo-Darwinism or Weismannism specifically denies that phenotypic character can be passed on as genotypic inheritance. The genotype instructs the form of a particular species and undergoes mutation as a result of imperfect replication but it is selection pressure that thins the phenotypes and it is this that determines the surviving gene pool . It is the differential survival of the phenotypes depending on what genes they are given rather than what they as a species strive to do in order to survive in the environment.
Lamarckism in its extreme form is puzzling in that it is difficult to see how acquired characteristics could change a system which has intimate connections between each piece of genetic coding. The ability of individual phenotypes to alter their gene pool would also seem to lead to chaos in the species genome.
As Richard Dawkins (1986) pointed out, not all acquired characteristics are beneficial. Indeed the vast number are deleterious and Lamarckian theory can explain adaptive improvements only as it were ‘riding on the back of Darwinian theory’. It needs ‘natural selection’ to make it work but unlike Darwinism it seems to leave room for ‘will’ or ‘volition’ in human beings, though how that might arise has yet to be explained.

Towards ‘Universal Darwinism’

Richard Dawkins argues that all life in the Universe must follow the Darwinian rules of ‘inheritance’, ‘variation’ and ‘selection’ even if what is selected and replicated is very different on other worlds. In other words there is always a population of replicating entities in which imperfect copies are acted on by natural selection. Whilst in explicating human social evolution it would be unwise to go down a reductionist road and explain everything in biological terms it is useful to ask whether we can we apply some of these general principles. For example, if culture can be seen as a set of beliefs or habits which are passed to or inherited by descendants can we use a biological analogy? Richard Dawkins suggested that there might be an analogue of the biological gene in cultural evolution which he calls the ‘meme’. But the nature of a meme is difficult to pin down. The concept of ‘ideas’ seems ill defined. Could they be ‘instructions’ which result in ‘behaviour patterns’? The pragmatist philosophers, Charles Sanders Pierce, William James and John Dewey saw the analogue of genes in the social sphere as ‘habits’ rather than ‘information’ or ‘ideas’ and American institutional economists such as Thorstein Veblen built on these foundations. ‘Information’ and even ‘idea’ it was thought depend crucially on ingrained habits of cognition, thought and behaviour.
Pierce said in 1878 that: ‘the essence of belief is the establishment of habit’, and here habit is understood as a ‘self actuating propensity’ or ‘disposition to engage in particular response or forms of action’. It was also assumed all ideas and beliefs are built upon habits but not the reverse and that acquired habits are founded upon inherited instincts. If we ask what ‘learning’ is then it is the acquisition of habits. This forges a bridge between the biological and the psychological by which we can explicate the social process. Inasmuch as a habit is a disposition or propensity and not the behaviour pattern itself it resembles the gene. It is a potential for behaviour just as the gene is the potential for a particular characteristic.
Genetics is a couple of hundred years old, though the ‘gene’ was postulated a hundred years before anyone actually found one. Before then it wasn’t considered a particularly useful concept.When people were studying inheritance they didn’t use a component element. What they talked about was a process and perhaps we can talk about a process using the general principles of Darwinism without importing the necessity of a particular form of replication. We can talk about inheritance as a certain kind of perpetuation and selection as the differential proportion of certain patterns after engagement with an environment. We can also perhaps see this ‘universal Darwinism’ as a theory of self organisation in a complex system where specified particulate entities are not a necessary presupposition.
Replication implies that there is something analogous to the gene but although a degree of fidelity is necessary in transmission there’s no need to import notions of life span, or the genotype/phenotype distinction or sexual recombination. How we read ‘replication’ will depend on how we see the information codified. In life studies we have become hugely focussed on chemistry as a means of understanding how information encodes in an animal or a plant but it’s still possible to do good biology without chemistry. There’s no reason to assume in the primeval soup, for example, that there was the same kind of particulate separation that we assume in the encoding today. It’s quite possible that the first patterns arose through some kind of recurring metabolism that we do not now recognise. It was autocatalytic perhaps but we can’t really say which bit carried which information.
The fact that we recognise certain kinds of emergence from the combination of certain kinds of chemical structures which we label ‘entities’ may be a fact of chemistry but we don’t need a particular kind of analysis for ‘universal Darwinism’ to be useful. A reaction may kick another reaction and there may be no way of separating out a specific generation. There may also be a million different ways in which information is encoded but as analysts we stand back from a complex system and see recurring patterns. If we do distinguish certain kinds of agencies which appear to flourish at the expense of others then we have the basic requirements of evolution. It’s an empirical question as to what the vehicle for replication might be and which traits are the instantiation of underlying information.
Self organisation in the biological system is an ongoing process and if we look at any particular timespan all we can say is that it is different from previous times. Moreover there’s something different about the evolution of life. It’s certainly not like shaking a box of cornflakes for a billion years and finding that order comes out of the random pattern. And even if we set up a computer program which has rules of variation, replication and selection very often evolution will run really fast for a few generations and then stop. Not all complex systems that self organise are self perpetuating in the way that life is. If an asteroid hits the Earth and wipes out all life the asteroid may be part of a system that self organises but is not self perpetuating. We should perhaps distinguish several different kinds of complex system in the universe. There may be one kind in biological evolution another in technological evolution and a third going on in computer databases. They all might satisfy the criteria for self organisation but they wouldn’t necessarily self perpetuate. Biological systems do and so, derivatively, do cultural ones and we’re struggling to put a boundary round them. We can’t say, in the case of the evolution of living things that there’s a beginning and a middle and and end though there has to be something integral about it. Likewise the Earth in its entirety is in many ways an open system but it has to have some degree of integrity about it. The notion of co-evolution adds an interesting layer to self perpetuation but we still have to ask the question about how many ways a system can be complex. If a computer program dies or gets into a simple cycle after a few generations when we look at life or derivative features such as social evolution we can appreciate that it is so many orders of magnitude different.
Darwinism doesn’t tell us why a bird got its wings or why we have hair and are six foot tall. Universal Darwinism doesn’t tell us much about biological evolution. Such things are explained by other science. But Universal Darwinism is a simple framework into which we might fit other theories of culture or economics. If we are talking about companies or institutions then we need other theories about why they change. We might for example talk about companies collaborating or imitating each other. We might talk about some companies being weaker replicators than others within the constraints of some particular legal system.

Darwinism or Lamarckism?

Mainstream biologists eschew Lamarckism because it is not an organising principle in the way that Darwinism is. But when we look at social evolution we can see that ‘ideas’ or ‘memes’ are learned and passed from generation to generation with a great deal of sorting and mixing. So in its mild form Lamarckism would seem to apply. But now what can Lamarckism give us that Universal Darwinism cannot? Can we identify ‘variation’, ‘replication’ and ‘selection’ in a system. If we can characterise these components then we can perhaps find patterns of change. But whereas in biology we look at information transfer by the genes, in social evolution there may be many different levels at which it takes place and many different vehicles of transmission. Within particular institutions where experts communicate the information may be highly abstracted as in the case of the sciences. Or information may be transmitted by different vehicles such as books or other artifacts. But do we need to consider ‘information’ or ‘idea’ in order to distinguish complexity in a human social system? Maybe not.

What’s replicated?

If we ask the question ‘what is replicated?’, then we have the same kind of puzzle that we have with a gene. If a gene is merely an ‘instruction’ then that instruction is not necessarily transmitted by a specific molecular structure though in genetics it might be. So supposing a company makes a product, say a medicinal pill, and a rival company wants to break into the market by copying it. What is it they need to imitate? Is it a component of the product or the product itself? Is it the active ingredient or the raspberry taste or is it the packaging? We could probably use universal Darwinism to examine the evolution of all these.
As economists we are concerned with understanding the evolution of technology within a company and how best it can bring products to the market. If we can model the situation as a complex system or encourage a situation in which variation, replication and selection operate then a company may have on ongoing process where it produces products which have real impact in the market place. But now, what is it that we need to tinker with in order to get the right kind of complexity? It is people as agents who create the technology so it’s what they do or have the potential to do that we should look at. Companies in trouble usually have bad habits. It’s a priority to find out who stores information and where and how easy it is to retrieve? We might also consider what kind of reward system could be put in place? It’s a pragmatic position to say habits are the foundation of all ideas but the assumption is that to have an idea a person must have a set of habits by which to understand it.

An Observer’s Eye View 

Learning the guitar, for example, means acquiring a whole new set of habits which we may learn by imitating someone else who plays; holding the guitar, manipulating the fingers etc. Imitating the behaviour patterns is not learning the guitar but as universal Darwinists we may be able to distinguish features of the complex systems in which guitars figure. Imagine that we are Martians. We’re not particularly interested in people or guitars as entities but the patterns that spread through a population. We would note the guitar as a physical object; what it’s made of, how it’s strung to use a particular octave etc. The guitar would be a ‘memeplex’ which we would see it as a recurring pattern. Not being human we would ask, ‘what’s the inheritance?’ and then we would see other patterns; guitars being born in factories, networks of music shops, guitars being passed from parents to children and so on. That would describe the inheritance and the epidemiology. As for the tunes these would be merely patterns of sound waves. We would note that some of them are picked up by radio things and certain bipeds get activity in their neural pathways though perhaps not the same as the quadrupeds. At another level we might pick out the musical notation and see that the octave first occurred in 1574 and is still being reproduced and used in buildings with young bipeds. Different inheritance, different replication, new patterns of epidemiology, new modes of co-evolution etc. There is perhaps no reason why a Martian would necessarily pick out human agents in order to apply universal Darwinism. They might pick out a tune, define a pool of tunes and the lifespan of a tune. He or she would look at the distribution in time and space. Each time a tune is played it’s an instantiation in a universe of tunes.

High Fidelity

Fidelity is an integral part of replication but how faithful do you have to be? The payoff between retention of characteristics and replication in biological systems is an interesting one. Variation, replication and selection are like interlocking levers in the evolutionary system. If variation is high then replication fails. If selection is high then there is no replication. These two are interlocking and constitute classic components of a complex system.
In the biological Darwinian process high fidelity occurs early and the level of mutation is finely tuned to the particular form. For example in the case of a virus which has a relatively small amount of information in its RNA the mutation level can be quite high. In the case of something as complex as an elephant it has to be low. Then again this is counterbalanced by the notion that we could have a number of very risky mutations that are a disaster for most individuals but the few that work give great advantages to the species. If you have your basic information protected by having large numbers of individuals you can afford to be a little more cavalier with the mistakes.In using the analogy with a company this would mean a number of very risky small projects of which a few would work.
In a complex system newness is not just a recombination of the old. Things emerge because of the past history of the system but they are not determined by it. There are constraints in that the past history closes off some options that were possible but are no longer so. There is a logical space in which mutations can occur and this is shaped by the necessity of surviving.
In a company it’s important to balance exploration of this logical space with exploitation. In animal genome exploration where mutation is limited it is tested by the environment. In human social evolution where more drastic mutation can be tolerated the exploitation is up to the human agents. Exploration and exploitation often appear mutually exclusive in a company but you also need to consider how exploration can enlarge the logical space in which a company works.

Mutation or Modification and Intent

A patterns, such as a tune may be replicated in a number of ways. It may be replicated on little discs in which case the level of fidelity is very high or on instruments played by ‘jammers’ in which case the fidelity may be low. Inheritance may be complex but given that different reproductive routes can be distinguished a epidemiological study would enable predictions to be made about the rate of spread through a population. All of these routes would have different rates of mutation associated with them. The mutation in the replication of discs may be negligible but the imitation of people by people would involve all kinds of subtle changes because of simple mishearings or because of different intent on behalf of the listener. At an observer level we simply distinguish the spread of different patterns, through libraries or databases or documents or memo’s but if the instantiation is an edict from the general manager then we begin to consider the who rather than the what. It then becomes very important to find out not just who talks to who, but who convinces who or has a special relationship with who. We start to take account of information, and mission statements and strategic intents. So there has to be a community of interest which fits into a social niche.

Social Organisations and Sentiments

But how do we interpret ‘intent’? A social organisation is a group of interacting agents in some organised or self organised form. In being organised or self organised there are socially embedded ‘rules’ which may or may not reflect ‘habits’. So, in order to define a system we must relate ‘rules’ to ‘habits’. It may, for example, be a rule that nobody should drive over 70 mph though it is a habit that nearly everybody does. If we assume ‘rationality’ of agents then we explain ‘rules’ in terms of their incentives and the rules are self enforcing. But either way they are explained in terms of intention either individual or collective. If we want to use universal Darwinism then we have to explain how people evolve calculations that lead to decisions in terms of instincts or habits. We need an explanation of rationality seen from a meme perspective and an explanation of how a number of autonomous rational agents decide things collectively. It would be interesting to know what the necessary and sufficient conditions for human social evolution are. Animals learn in their societies but the learning is not ‘runaway’ like our own. Beavers, for example, learn to build dams but they do not go on learning to build better and better dams. Within human social evolution, agent autonomy, language and rich individual intention the system becomes very complex indeed. Universal Darwinism provides a way of identifying the complex system and the development of particular features of it, but it is limited by the extent to which ‘habits’, ‘feelings’ or ‘ideas’ are objective to the individual agent. Lamarkism allows for us to change the rules anyway we like but only Darwinism can allow for the kind of objective constraints that constitute a selective pressure.