From preface to special issue on







George Modelski and Kazimierz Poznanski


Department of Political Science

Jackson School of International Studies


University of Washington, Seattle



Explaining change

Change usually occurs imperceptibly and out of sight, so that it becomes hard to grasp and think about in a systematic fashion. We are most effectively alerted to the fact of change when its pace accelerates, and in particular when change manifests itself in the form of crises. The recent collapse of the communist system in Eastern Europe is one such sign of crisis, because for a time that system stood for one of the directions of social change, a systemic alternative that at times it seemed a permanent feature, possibly even embodying a winning strategy. Another development of wide portent is rapid economic expansion of East Asia.

At such times minds search for explanations of what they observe happening but cannot handle and seemingly can do little about. To some such crises herald the dawn of a new age of democracy and peace; others observe a flare-up of ethnic strife and anticipate world chaos. That is when new theories of transformation arise and old ones are refurbished for the occasion. That is when and how new social science paradigms are either built or rediscovered.

One such paradigm that might help us comprehend rapidly changing reality is an evolutionary one. It is distinguished by a well-grounded intellectual tradition in almost all the major disciplines, among them sociology (August Comte, Herbert Spencer, Talcott Parsons), archaeology (Gordon Childs), and philosophy (Karl Popper, Donald Campbell). Among the most elaborated contributions to such though have been those in economics, involving such major figures as Thorstein Veblen, Friedrich von Hayek, and Joseph Schumpeter. Evolutionary economics has experienced a particularly notable growth in recent years.

While rich, this tradition might not currently possess the coherence and the complexity of other paradigms in the social sciences. The present collection, a sample of papers presented at two workshops held at the University of Washington, in May 1994, and May 1995 1, represents a step in the direction of increasing that coherence, and adding to the complexity. It does so both by undertaking comparative assessments of paradigms and of the state of the field, and by attacking some recent problems in international relations and international political economy.

In most general terms, those who identify themselves with the evolutionary approach share one methodological characteristic: they reject the model of theorizing represented by classical physics, or mechanics, that is generally implied by conventional paradigms, in neoclassical economics in particular. Instead they endorse methodologies that characterize biology or, more generally, natural history.

The shift from mechanics to biology - that is a shift between metaparadigms - involves moving from statics to dynamics. Analysis then moves from a time-free to a time-prone reality that implies irreversibility and thus opens the way to history. While mechanics assumes determinism, biology focuses on probabilities and chance. While mechanics assumes a fundamental uniformity of building elements, biology celebrates variation and diversity.

In the social sciences, we can distinguish two main uses of biology (or natural history); one of these emphasizes the biological roots of human behavior, as was prominent in particular as sociobiology. 2 Most recently it has attracted attention in the form of evolutionary psychology as in Robert Wright's THE MORAL ANIMAL (1994). Evolutionary psychologists are trying to discover "a deeper unity" within the human species, a unity that can be attributed to the evolutionary design and the evolutionary origin of humans. We do not wish to ignore or minimize the role of biological factors in the explanation of psychological and social processes but our own predisposition is to rely, for purposes of social modeling, in the first place on the use of evolutionary analogy.

We employ this analogy because, in our view, biological and social systems are both subject to evolutionary processes and for that reason share certain similarities. They are complex systems that exhibit selection pressures, and cooperative and synergistic features; and in their transformations they employ information and thrive on innovation. That does not mean that (physical and biological) nature, and society (as well as culture) need to be equated with each other, because their processes differ fundamentally, if only on the time dimension. But they do share some general properties that allow for the careful application of the same language, and the employment of analogous concepts. We propose to use biology (or natural history broadly speaking) as a specific scientific method but without its specific meanings.

Within the evolutionary analogy, in turn, two approaches appear to be emerging as complementary, and mutual reinforcing visions of the social order. One of them centers on the analysis of evolutionary processes viewed as long-term change, as in the rise and decline of world powers, or the transformation of international normative structures. The other formulates conditions for the optimum performance of evolutionary processes, as they might be encoded e.g. in general political economy approaches, that deal both with the dynamics, and statics (or morphology) of social systems. The contributions to this issue draw on both of these approaches....

What is more, we have (now) gained greater confidence in the value of this approach. An evolutionary paradigm engages change in a sustained manner and it does so both at macro- and micro-levels. If it is particularly suited for delving into problems of large-scale systems experiencing long-range transformations, it might be singularly appropriate for use by those in international studies who seek to trace and explain global change.

Are we justified in using an "evolutionary" label for the contributions here assembled? We believe we are, because the papers we present exemplify all the characteristics of such an approach: for they are studies of long-term change in an international context (e.g. Modelski, Hodgson); they concern institutions and institutional stability and change (Gilpin); they focus on mechanisms of selection in policy-making (Farkas), and inquire into changes in values and preferences (Florini). Most take some pains to contrast the character of the evolutionary approach with others.

In that light, an evolutionary paradigm appears to serve as well as others employed in international studies, and needs to be added to standard lists (such as Robert Gilpin's well-known list of "Conceptions of Political Economy" 3). Not only is this approach, in its major premises and concepts, complete enough, but is also coherent enough to be considered as a viable and legitimate intellectual alternative to other, well- recognized paradigms: marxist, liberal, and realist (including mercantilist). Kazimierz Poznanski 4 has been pursuing this line of research trying to look at the evolutionary approach in a comparative fashion, so as to fit it into the conventional classsification of international political economy paradigms.

We can speak of an evolutionary paradigm only in a very general sense because in reality there are a number of competing approaches that fall into that general line of thought. But it is also true that none of the other paradigms is a uniform, bloc-solid body of thinking except only in general terms. By seizing and occupying the main ground for so long, these other, non-evolutionary, currents in the social sciences not only have come to exhibit great internal diversity but are also, at any given time, usually dominated by certain specific versions of such paradigms.

Given this intra-paradigmatic diversity, it is not surprising that we can find some evolutionary elements taken from specific applications, or subsets within the general scheme of such analysis, in other now prevalent paradigms. For instance, in the study of International Relations, moreover, both realism, and liberalism (idealism) embody, to a degree, evolutionary concepts. In its emphasis on competition and self-help, neo-realism shows a close affinity for social Darwinism (though not Darwinism itself) that marked social thought at the turn of the 20th century. And liberalism, in its search for sources of harmony in world organization, stood close to those strands of evolutionary thought that take cooperation to be a basic organizing principle or survival strategy.

Nevertheless, the search for an evolutionary paradigm cannot be entirely pointless as long as we leave behind largely ideological considerations, and are careful to specify a set of concrete questions, and another set of plausible answers. If our questions resolutely focus on problems of long-term institutional change, and on micromechanisms of progation by individual agents, and if our answers are firmly grounded in historical evidence and common sense constatations rather than pure abstractions or dry modeling, we can have the confidence of striving for an attainable goal. Then ours might be a contribution to such a quest.

Meetings such as the workshops draw attention to the need for a common language. Evolutionary biology is the common ground here but in the social sciences especially adapted terms are often needed (as when memes become analogous to genes). What in biology is mutation appears in economics and politics as innovation. What in biology is natural selection becomes in the social sciences a variety of selection processes such as economic competition. The role of information is to be more closely specified. The analysis of transitions could be sharpened. Beyond the evident consensus for a focus on institutional change we might want to give greater attention to clarifying the links between macro- and micro-levels, to integrating analyses of long-term institutional change (and that is also referred to as evolutionism) with optimum conditions for managing change at the individual and organizational level. All in all, a full agenda, but not without prospects.




1. The workshops were sponsored by the International Studies Center of the Jackson School of International Studies, with assistance from the Graduate School Fund, the College of Arts and Sciences, and the Department of Political Science of the University of Washington. For the program and participants, a summary of the sessions, and an annotated bibliography see EVOLUTIONARY PARADIGMS IN THE SOCIAL SCIENCES; Report of workshop held May 13-14, 1994; Seattle: University of Washington 1994, 64 pp., and EVOLUTIONARY PARADIGMS IN THE SOCIAL SCIENCES II, Report of workshop held May 26-27, 1995; Seattle: University of Washington 1995, 69 pp.


2. This journal carried a Symposium on "Human Evolution and War" in its March 1987 issue.




4. In such of his writings as "Evolutionary Conceptualization of International Political Economy", University of Washington 1995, (mimeo.).