An evolutionary social science? A skeptic’s brief, theoretical and substantive

Philosophy of the Social Sciences 34 (4):451-492 (2004)
Abstract
So-called grand or paradigmatic theories—structural functionalism, psychoanalysis, Marxism, rational-choice theory—provide their proponents with a conceptual vocabulary and syntax that allows for the classification and configuring of wide ranges of phenomena. Advocates for any particular “analytical grammar” are accordingly prone to conflating the internal coherence of their paradigm—its integrated complex of definitions, axioms, and inferences—with a corresponding capacity for representational verisimilitude. The distinction between Theory-as-heuristic and Theory-as-imposition is of course difficult to negotiate in practice, given that empirical observation and measurement are not entirely “theory neutral” or independent of prior analytical conceptualization. Nonetheless, the scientific cogency of any theory is ultimately evaluated by the substantive realism of its foundational assumptions and categorical designations; that is, the accuracy with which it identifies and tracks the determinant properties and processes of the phenomena to be explicated. The paradigm of sociocultural evolutionism—despite extensive revamping by contemporary proponents—does not carry warrant in this regard, as its recourse to an analytical grammar fashioned and derived from another discipline raises doubts about its empirical veridicality. This article revisits the contentious issue of remodeling social phenomena in accordance with biological categories and offers both a theoretical and a substantive critique of the “selectionist” paradigm. The transdisciplinary program of historical social science is affirmed by way of counterpoint
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