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The Relationship Between Theory and History in Evolutionary Biology: A Model for Historical Sociology?

By Edgar Kiser
Sociology, University of Washington
February 19, 2008

Based on work by Edgar Kiser and Howard Welser

Sociologists have often looked to the natural and physical sciences for theoretical and methodological models. One recent attempt to use the natural sciences as a model for the social sciences comes from historical sociology, where several prominent scholars have argued that evolutionary biology could provide useful guidelines for understanding the relationship between history and theory in explanation. These historical sociologists are not suggesting that the substance of biological theory can explain social processes and outcomes they are not advocating (nor do they even address) the utility of the type of substantive borrowing employed in population ecology theory, sociobiology, or evolutionary psychology and we will not discuss these debates either. Their interest in evolutionary biology is motivated by broadly methodological concerns. They see general similarities between the objects of study in evolutionary biology and historical sociology which they suggest might call for similar approaches to constructing explanations, since both are historical sciences.

We argue that explanation in evolutionary biology (1) is a theory-driven enterprise, and uses a small number of general causal mechanisms with broad scope to explain a wide variety of general and particular outcomes; (2) is based on a well developed classification system derived from general theoretical principles; (3) has an inherent chance component (due in their case to the random effect of mutations), which makes most forms of prediction impossible; and (4) is fundamentally historical because contemporary causal processes are always built on and thus constrained by the nature of existing structures. In addition to elaborating these arguments, we offer two more specific recommendations: that historical sociologists could benefit from two things that have been used very effectively in evolutionary biology, game theory and computer simulations.

Readings: To Be Announced...

Time and location:
Thursday, February 19, 2009
3:30 - 5:00pm (refreshments served)
Center for Social Dynamics and Complexity
ISTB-1, Room 401