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The prospects for Darwinian imperialism

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Alex Mesoudi, together with various co-authors, has recently levelled serious allegations against contemporary social sciences (anthropology, archaeology, sociology, experimental psychology, among others). According to Mesoudi, not only are their methods suspect and inefficient, but they also use mutually incommensurable vocabularies, preventing any potentially fruitful interdisciplinary linkages. In the light of such a situation, Mesoudi argues that the social sciences need a unifying framework, one that provides efficient and productive methods, while also allowing for and promoting cross-disciplinary projects and analyses.

Mesoudi’s preferred cure for this situation is a framework modelled on the Darwinian one he sees at play in the biological sciences. Just as the biological sciences have been unified under the aegis of the Modern Synthesis, Mesoudi argues, so too can the social sciences be unified under a new, Cultural Synthesis, based around Darwinian principles. But what I will show is that what Mesoudi means by ‘framework’, let alone a ‘Darwinian framework’ is far from clear.

I will argue that we can isolate three different interpretations, or understandings, of what Mesoudi means when he invokes a ‘Darwinian framework’, and that Mesoudi plumps for the strongest of the three. However, I will suggest that the two arguments he puts forward for this strong interpretation are flawed. Indeed, I will close by suggesting that only the weakest interpretation of what a ‘Darwinian framework’ entails has any empirical support, but that this weak interpretation shares only a tenuous relationship to Darwinian evolution as it is used in the biological sciences.

This talk is part of the HPS Philosophy Workshop series.

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