Having exceeded the allotted 500 words in my comment on Elinor Ostrom’s paper, I do not want to presume to heavily on the attention of colleagues by writing a long comment on this important paper. I am essentially in full agreement with the argument, that evolutionary thinking holds immense promise for improving the social sciences. I have been less fortunate, perhaps, than the authors, who report a more general “open-mindedness” than I have found to these ideas, but I understand that honey may bring more success than a battering ram.
There is, however, one point I would like to make. One approach evaluated and found wanting by the authors is structural equation based formal modeling. It just cannot contend with the complexity of the problems presented by study of the social world. I agree. But one advantage of that approach; one strong point that it has, is that it can define itself clearly. What exactly is meant by a structural equation, or game theory, or rational choice, theories, can be and is regularly stated by its practitioners. I have in this context found it unsettling that evolutionists commonly fail to stipulate their definition of “evolution” or “evolutionary.” Without doing so, an exhortation to use the “evolutionary tool-kit” can very reasonably be met with skepticism or even bewilderment. Evolutionary thinking is about explaining change; but certainly not all change is evolutionary. So what is or are the defining characteristics of “evolution” or an “evolutionary approach?” What rule could be used to determine what tool belongs in an evolutionary tool-kit, and which tools do not?
I recognize that this is a tough problem; a problem some have argued is insoluble. I think that is a difficult if not impossible position to defend. So, flawed as it may be, I here offer my own stipulated (and published) definition for consideration by the group. I suggest that the defining characteristic of evolution is that in relation to circumstances patterns of change observed among units produce subsequent patterns of population change. Whether the patterns of change observed at the unit level entail mergers, cooperation, competition by individual units against a general constraint, or competition of units, are empirical questions with possible theoretical importance, but not ruled in or out by definition. Whether the patterns of change at the population level are considered gradual or rapid and whether they are regarded as progressive or undesirable, are, likewise, not questions of definition, but of the time scale and preferences employed by the observer. Nor does this definition require a specific mechanism (such as natural selection) to be responsible for transforming changes at one unit of aggregation into changed patterns at another.21 As a definition should be, it is agnostic with respect to the validity of theories employing it. It does suggest, however, that interesting patterns that manifest themselves historically at some macro level may be traced, in complex but systematic ways, to conditions operating at much lower levels of analysis.
(from Ian S. Lustick, “Taking Evolution Seriously: Historical Institutionalism and Evolutionary Theory,” Polity (January 2011) pp. 1-31.)