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1 September 2007 Historical change and evolutionary theory
Roger D. Masters
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Despite advances in fields like genetics, evolutionary psychology, and human behavior and evolution — which generally focus on individual or small group behavior from a biological perspective — evolutionary biology has made little impact on studies of political change and social history. Theories of natural selection often seem inapplicable to human history because our social behavior is embedded in language (which makes possible the concepts of time and social identity on which what we call “history” depends). Peter Corning's Holistic Darwinism reconceptualizes evolutionary biology, making it possible to go beyond the barriers separating the social and natural sciences. Corning focuses on two primary processes: “synergy” (complex multivariate interactions at multiple levels between a species and its environment) and “cybernetics” (the information systems permitting communication between individuals and groups over time). Combining this frame of reference with inclusive fitness theory, it is possible to answer the most important (and puzzling) question in human history: How did a species that lived for millennia in hunter-gatherer bands form centralized states governing large populations of non-kin (including multi-ethnic empires as well as modern nation-states)? The fragility and contemporary ethnic violence in Kenya and the Congo should suffice as evidence that these issues need to be taken seriously. To explain the rise and fall of states as well as changes in human laws and customs — the core of historical research — it is essential to show how the provision of collective goods can overcome the challenge of self-interest and free-riding in some instances, yet fail to do so in others. To this end, it is now possible to consider how a state providing public goods can — under circumstances that often include effective leadership — contribute to enhanced inclusive fitness of virtually all its members. Because social behavior needs to adapt to ecology, but ecological systems are constantly transformed by human technology and social behavior, multilevel evolutionary processes can explain two central features of human history: the rise, transformations, and ultimate fall of centralized governments (the “stuff” of history); and the biological uniqueness of Homo sapiens as the mammalian species that colonized — and became top carnivore — in virtually every habitable environment on the earth's surface. Once scholars admit the necessity of linking processes of natural selection with human transformations of the natural world, it will seem anomalous that it has taken so long to integrate Darwinian biology and the social sciences.

Roger D. Masters "Historical change and evolutionary theory," Politics and the Life Sciences 26(2), 46-74, (1 September 2007).
Published: 1 September 2007

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