Of Genomes, Ideas, and the Ghostliness of Both

Posted on March 2, 2009 by


Last week I took over Sven Steinmo’s graduate seminar on evolutionary politics for a week, here at the European University Institute outside Florence. The seminar began with the readings I had assigned, selections from John Kingdon’s book on policy origins as ell as some pieces by me.  It quickly moved into fundamental questions of applying emergent order analysis to politics, and the social sciences generally.

I made the point that it was important in our study of these issues to get the unit of analysis right, or else we could be led into some of the same confusions that characterized the unlamented field of Social Darwinism.  I suggested that in nature evolution’s unit was the genome, in the human world, usually it was the idea.  Both genomes and ideas live and die, spread and dwindle.

Later I met with one of the students to discuss his PhD research at EUI.  Our talk has ed me to rethink this statement.  (The advantage of good students is they are as intelligent as I and often ask questions I would have never though of asking.)  Jepe, thank you!

In fact genomes are not building blocks to organisms.  Genes express themselves only in relation to other genes and to the environment within which the organism lives.  Context and relationship are vital.

Similarly, ideas mean what they mean only in relationship to other ideas (which can map onto the world better or worse, but that is another issue.)  Like words in Wittgensein’s language games, ideas are what they are because of how they participate in a field of relationships.  Change the relationships, change the ideas.

There is no fundamental adaptive unit, and perhaps the search for on is a relic of the old Newtonian mechanistic reductionistic world we used to think existed around us.  What serves as a unit is the product of our questions rather than existing free from our subjectivity.

It seems to me this point, if true, drives a stake through the core of rational choice assumptions about human beings as well.

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