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Kahler: Evolution, choice, and international change

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I even say who wrote them. If you have more recent summaries to add to this collection, send them my way I guess. Sorry for the ads; they cover the costs of keeping this online.

Kahler. 1999. Evolution, choice, and international change. In Strategic Choice, eds. Lake and Powell, pp. 165-196.

There are different kinds of evolutionary theories. "Hard" Darwinism stresses that biological variations are random, and that the environment selects some variants to succeed (natural selection). Lamarckian theories allow that organisms might respond to environmental demands and adapt to meet them. Kahler seeks to apply evolutionary theories to IR to explain institutional evolution.

In IR, we need to strike a balance between recognizing that actors can think (i.e. they don't act randomly) and recognizing that the environment exerts selective pressures. Often we focus too hard on one or the other. This chapter spends quite a bit of time discussing issues related to this balance.

Kahler holds up Spruyt as a good example of applying evolutionary theory. For Spruyt, three institutional forms responded (in a Lamarckian style) to the growth of trade, the city-state, the city-league, and territorial states. Three different kinds of selective pressures led states to emerge as the dominant institutional form (only the first is an environmental pressure). First, states' internal organization made them better at mobilizing resources for war. Second, mutual empowerment gave states a boost: states preferred to work with similarly-organized units. Third (really two mechanisms), "competition may spur imitation of more successful institutional forms ... and accelerate the exit of social actors from less successful units."

Kahler praises Spruyt (also Tilly) for their work with evolutionary theories. "The design of their arguments fits the broad definition of an evolutionary model given by Richard Nelson: an explantion of the movement of a variable across time; a means of generating variation and a mechanism for winnowing on that variation; and 'inertial forces' that provide 'constancy' in the survivors" (191).

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Kahler, Miles (author)Political ScienceInternational RelationsEvolutionInstitutionsOrigins of InstitutionsSystemic Change

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