The Seven Philosophical Pillars of Darwinism

In Geoffrey Hodgson’s fantastic book, The Evolution of Institutional Economics: Agency Structure, and Darwinism in American Institutionalism, he has a great section on the seven philosophical pillars of Darwinism. These principles have profound implications for not only institutional economics, but virtually every scientific subject. Because of their importance, I thought that I would list and summarize these principles here. It should be mentioned that not all of these principles were explicit in Darwin’s work and some of them were better formulated during the 20th century.

1. The Principle of Determinacy

Determinism is a word with several definitions and people often confuse them. The three main versions of determinisms are as follows:

– Predictability determinism or what Karl Popper calls “scientific” determinism, which is an epistemological doctrine that states “any event can be rationally predicted, with any desired degree of precision, if we are given a sufficiently precise description of past events, together with all the laws of nature” (Popper 1982: 1-2).

-Regularity determinism, which says that any given set of circumstance must lead to a unique outcome or as Brand Blanshard exposits, “the view that every event A is so connected with a later event B that, given A, B must occur.”  This form of determinisms denies randomness and chance in the universe and as Hodgson says, “is an ontological rather than an epistemological notion.” (Hodgson 2004: 59)

-And finally there is the principle of determinacy, which is that notion that every event has a cause. Mario A. Bunge has also referred to this principle by the name of near determinism, which states that “first, everything occurs according to law, and second, nothing comes out of nothing. But those laws can be probabilistic or can be causal, or a combination of the two.

It is the last definition that we are concerned with. Many people think the first two views exclude intentionality. However, the third definition includes intentionality and does not diminish the responsibility of will and choice.

2. Emergent Materialism 

Emergent Materialism rejects independent forms of being and the notion that one type of substance (mind) is entirely separate from another (matter). The mind is viewed in terms of emergent properties of organized matter and human intentions are regarded as emergent properties of materialist interactions within the nervous system. Another important point is that because the mind is made up of emergent properties of organized matter, it can have certain properties that cannot be predicated on the specific qualities of its material components. Hence, emergent materialisms limits or even excludes reductionism.

3. Population Thinking

This principle is one of the more confusing ones, but Jody Hey in his paper Regarding the Confusion between the Population Concept and Mayr’s “Population Thinking, does a great job of explaining it in simpler terms:

According to this history, naturalists before Darwin viewed the differing organisms of a species as imperfect manifestations around a central Platonic type or ideal. Then after coming to understand Darwin’s theory and the evidence supporting it, biologists shrugged off the typological mindset and developed population thinking in which a species has no central type and in which variation among organisms is not a kind of meaningless noise to be ignored, but rather the very raw materials of natural selection and evolution. 

In the context of social sciences, population thinking entails an “ontological commitment to variety”. In other words, the nature or essence of something involves not only the singular object in question, but also the object’s relationship and membership to a population of similar but non-identical objects. The understanding of any entity must consider the population of similar entities in which variation is present.

4. The Doctrine of Continuity

Continuity upholds the idea that complex outcomes are the result of incremental and accumulated changes. As Darwin stressed, “the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind,” and the development of a species isn’t the result of teleological determinisms, but instead a casual and evolutionary outcome of accumulated variations. In the context of humans, this means that human intentionality has evolved through time and these conscious intentions coexist in the mind with less conscious habit driven behavior. This principle provides a foundation for Darwin’s treatment of inheritance.

5. Cumulative Causation

The explanation of change involves analyzing and investigating casual operations. The way we do this is by focusing on key algorithmic processes. Even if a specific step in a process cannot be determined or studied in detail, the algorithmic process can help provide an explanation. In the case of Darwin and Darwinism, this key algorithmic process is natural selection. However, Hodgson stresses that “the concept of selection in Darwinism necessarily invokes neither competition nor militant struggle” (Hodgson 2004: 97).

6. The Principle of Evolutionary Explanation

Any behavioral assumption (including the ones made in economics and other social sciences) must be capable of casual explanation in evolutionary terms. At the very least, these behavior assumptions should be consistent with an understanding of human evolution. If there are real biological constraints on human behavior, they should neither be contradicted or negated by assumptions.

7. The Principle of Consistency of the Sciences

This principle is similar to the one above. Any scientific principle at a specific ontological level must be consistent with a scientific understanding of the other lower ontological levels. While the social sciences (economics, sociology, ect..) aren’t reducible to the physical sciences (biology, chemistry, physics, etc…), they must be consistent with acceptable versions of these sciences. As Hodgson states, “chemical determination has priority over biological  laws, biological determination has priority over they psychic, and psychic determination has priority over social laws” (Hodgson 2004: 98).


1. Hey, Jody. “Regarding the Confusion between the Population Concept and Mayr’s “Population Thinking”.” The Quarterly Review of Biology 86.4 (2011): 253-64. Print.

2. Hodgson, Geoffrey M. “Darwinism in Economics: From Analogy to Ontology.” Journal of Evolutionary Economics 12.3 (2002): 259-81. Print.

3. Hodgson, Geoffrey Martin. The Evolution of Institutional Economics: Agency, Structure, and Darwinism in American Institutionalism. London: Routledge, 2004. Print.

4. Popper, Karl R., and William Warren Bartley. “Kinds of Determinism.” The Open Universe: An Argument for Indeterminism. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1982. 1-2. Print.


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