Towards (and Away From) an Evolutionary Theory of Organization

Rod Thomas

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


The business of this paper is to examine whether organizations ‘evolve’. In every-day language, it is easy enough to say that they do, but supplying a theoretical account of the nature of this so-called ‘evolution’ is far from straight forward. Does it, for instance, commit one to a tour through the science of biology and the Darwinian theory of natural selection? The programme of research entitled ‘Generalized Darwinism’ asks of organizational theorists that they make such a commitment. Its proponents have recently explained their reasoning in the journals Organization Studies and Philosophy of the Social Sciences. Unsurprisingly, critical responses to this reasoning have also been published. This paper evaluates the claims of Generalized Darwinism. It is proposed that its account of organizational ‘evolution’ has two pillars. One is the claim that there are general Darwinian principles and concepts that are common to both the social and biological domains; these are represented by the triadic schema of ‘variation–selection–retention’. The other pillar, originally developed within modern evolutionary biology as a solution to some particular conceptual and theoretical difficulties within it, is the replicator-interactor distinction. The first pillar supports the second pillar. In an assessment of the claims of Generalized Darwinism, it is argued that the second pillar is demonstrably cracked, limited in what it can support, and therefore all too prone to being toppled. As for the first pillar, to which the programme collapses if the second pillar falls, the triadic schema simply represents a general scheme for constructing explanations and it is compatible with a very different approach to the discussion of social evolution that was originally developed, across various monographs in a fairly piecemeal manner, by the philosopher, Sir Karl Popper. This is an approach that pre-dates Generalized Darwinism, and has also been called ‘evolutionary’, even a ‘generalization of Darwin’ (but not, needless to say, a ‘Generalized Darwinism’). The paper attempts to marshal Popper’s ideas into a more coherent whole so that it may be compared to Generalized Darwinism. This also demonstrates that if the problem is to account for the ‘evolution’ of social organizations, then there is no need to support the account with the second interactor-replicator pillar of Generalized Darwinism, let alone the neo-Darwinist paraphernalia that plasters it.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2015
EventPhilosophy of Management 2015 - St Anne's College, University of Oxford
Duration: 1 Jul 2015 → …


ConferencePhilosophy of Management 2015
Period1/07/15 → …


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