Blute Blog

Blute's blog about evolutionary theory: biological, sociocultural and gene-culture.

Florestan Fernandes at the University of Toronto

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In the academic year 1969-70 as a new graduate student in Sociology at the University of Toronto I took a course in “Latin American Societies” taught by Prof. Florestan Fernandes. I had a strong interest in economic and social development in the “third world” as it was called it in those days. I had spent two years after my Bachelors degree in Psychology and English as a Canadian University Service Overseas volunteer (the Canadian version of the American Peace Corps) teaching in eastern Nigeria. I and other volunteers were horrified at the English curriculum in secondary schools and teacher training colleges. It was composed exclusively of English novels and poems. We took great pleasure in introducing the students to Nigerian novels and poetry such as Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart and Wole Soyinka’s poetry which they very much enjoyed. (Soyinka later became the first African to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.) I had also travelled in South America in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay and Brazil for some months. Another ex-volunteer who had been stationed there told me he thought that the people of the altiplano area there were the poorest in the world but I had told him I thought that those of the Sahelian area of Africa were so I decided to see for myself!

I had also been politically active in protesting the siege of Biafra and along with other ex-volunteers and others, in organizing a teach-in on “The Crisis in Development”. Rather than an afternoon or evening of lectures, we did the teach-in a different way. We organized four weeks of discussion groups in the community, churches, recreation centres and so on. Each of us led one group having produced four handbooks with readings and questions for discussion. A few of the readings were from works by Frantz Fanon and Ivan Illich.

I have fond memories of Prof. Fernandes and his lectures and was particularly impressed, not only by the content, but also by his academic rigour. He walked in each week and sat in a small circle with ten or so of us and read his lectures which he had previously written out in full. The lectures were eventually published in a book “The Latin American in Residence Lectures”, Toronto, University of Toronto, 1969-70 edited by Prof. Kurt Levy, a political science professor. I gather that I and another graduate student from the course assisted the editor with some comments. When Prof. Fernandes gave us pretty much free reign on topics for a paper for the course, I decide to follow up on my interest in Frantz Fanon and Ivan Illich on development and wrote arguing that there was a convergence of their views on autonomous development.

After another year, once my MA degree was completed, my interests took a somewhat different turn. I eventually wrote my PhD thesis on comparing theories of change in biology, psychology and the social sciences in the sociology department but with an interdisciplinary committee. Among other things I wrote a fairly widely cited article on “Sociocultural Evolution: An Untried Theory” on the idea that culture and social organization and not just genes “descend with modification”. For example, the languages within each of some two hundred language families have descended with modification from a common ancestral language. I taught at the University of Toronto, The University of Western Ontario (now Western University) and eventually returned to the University of Toronto as Associate Professor, then full Professor then Emeritus (retired)  Professor even though I am still active. In 2010 I also published a book with Cambridge University Press, “Darwinian Sociocultural Evolution: Solutions to Dilemmas in Cultural and Social Theory”.

Looking back now on the paper I wrote for Prof. Fernandes’ course (which I actually managed to find a copy of when asked by Diogo Valença and which he had published translated into Portugese along with this note in Novos Olhares Socials – UFRB V 3(2) 2020) my most egocentric memory is that he tried to give me a grade of 100 to which the powers that be objected so I ended up with a grade of 90 which was fine with me! But reading through the paper now, I don’t think I would change the substance at all – autonomy in development is as important as ever. And today the pandemic problem (hopefully in the short run), and the climate crisis in the longer run, are the two most important problems facing us all. I have every confidence Prof. Fernandes would agree with that as well were he still with us.

Written by Marion Blute

December 23, 2020 at 4:42 pm

More Transmissible Mutants of COVID-CoV-2 Likely to be Less Rather Than More Damaging

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In a post here on May 3 and in a post on the on-line magazine TVOL here
I suggested that the virus COVID-CoV-2 could well evolve to become more transmissible. Three broad classifications of mechanisms were mentioned – increases in maintenance, motility and mutability. This now seems to have occurred in London and south-east England although the mechanism remains unknown. This is not just an “I told you so” but also to add another prediction. Mutants of the virus that successfully spread are likely to cause the disease COVID-19 to become less rather than more damaging and fatal. This is because it is not in the virus’ interest to keep one down and unable to circulate let alone kill its victims along with itself.

Written by Marion Blute

December 20, 2020 at 5:11 pm

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What is the Objective of Life? Grand Offspring of Course.

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An organism does not have a life cycle, it is a life cycle. What is its objective? Not simply a duplicate set of genes, that’s for sure. Consider a simple semelparous life cycle – i.e. one that grows and develops then produces offspring all at the end. When has that life cycle been repeated or reproduced? When some or all of the offspring have grown and developed then produced offspring of course – i.e. when grand offspring have been born.

Written by Marion Blute

December 14, 2020 at 3:13 pm

The Use of Re in Forecasting COVID-19 is Misleading

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John Simpson kindly drew my attention to the Oxford’s COVID-19 Evidence Service’s method of forecasting the epidemic using their basic reproductive number which in my view is misleading (see and search “when will it be over”).

Their widely cited R parameter is defined as the expected average number of individuals one individual will infect in a susceptible population. If the expected R, Re, is less than 1 they expect the infection to eventually die out; if it is greater than 1, they expect it will continue to spread exponentially in the absence of immunization.

This is somewhat misleading. Instead, the growth of a biological population such as the virus is commonly described with the density-dependent S-shaped logistic function:


which relates the rate of growth of a population such as the virus SARS-CoV-2 which causes the disease COVID-19 at time t (the tangent to the curve relating population size to time) to its existing population size Nt and two parameters – r, the intrinsic rate of increase, and K, the ceiling, i.e. the carrying capacity of the environment. Initially, logistic growth approximates exponential growth because the expression in square brackets approximates 1 and hence dNt/dt approximates rNt , the expression for exponential growth. The maximum growth rate (tangent to the curve) is at K/2 and the growth rate declines thereafter symmetrically with its previous increase until it reaches 0 at N = K where population size itself levels off. The reason is obvious. Once half of the carrying capacity of the environment i.e. the susceptible host population is reached, it becomes harder and harder for the virus to find additional hosts; infected individuals become less and less likely to encounter people to infect – sometimes referred to by epidemiologists as herd immunity.

It should be pointed out that Re would not be misleading if it was being assumed that frequent culture-gene coevolution was taking place as described here about five posts ago. If frequent, adaptive mutations were taking place among the viruses, selected for by our culturally spread methods to avoid it (social distancing, mask wearing etc.), then the viral population could potentially continue to grow exponentially even to the ceiling. That extreme at least is very unlikely. Genetic variants of the virus are known, but there is no knowledge that the ones identified have adaptive and certainly that much adaptive significance, as of yet anyway. In any case, they explicitly assume a homogeneous viral population

However, it should also be pointed out that none of this matters for now and for the near future at least. By the best evidence I have been able to find, no country is close to having half of their population infected except possibly farmed Mink in Denmark!

Written by Marion Blute

November 5, 2020 at 4:58 pm

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J. B. S. Hadane’s Biography

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Lately I enjoyed reading Samanth Subramanian’s recently published biography of J. B. S. Haldane, A Dominant Character: The Radical Science and Restless Politics of J. B. S. Haldane published by W. W. Norton in 2020.

Haldane (1892-1964) is largely remembered today along with Ronald Fisher and Sewall Wright as forging the foundations of population genetics, commonly known as neo-Darwinism or “the modern synthesis” uniting Mendel’s theory of heredity with Darwin’s theory of evolution in the nineteen twenties and thirties. According to Subramanian, he got along well with both of them but they did not get along well with each other.

Haldane was obviously a memorable character. He grew up assisting his physiologist father and not uncommonly serving as a subject for his father’s research and continued that tradition in the first world war on the front with respect to the use of munitions and in the second world war experimenting on himself and others seeking solutions to a submarine disaster to the detriment of his health. His first marriage was something of a scandal as she was married with a son when they began their relationship; they were later divorced and he married a research assistant. He regretted never having children. He was always rebellious against authority whether at school, in the various academic institutions that employed him in Britain, and even in the first institute in India that he moved to at age 65 after the Suez crisis, eventually becoming an Indian citizen.

After the war, he was the most visible scientist of his time in Britain, always in demand as a popular writer, speaker and for guest appearances. His popular writings were usually on some scientific point while veering into politics. He was the recipient of many scientific honorary awards from the British, the French and the Americans. He opposed racism and at least coercive eugenics even though his forecast for the future included a lot of positive eugenics including eliminating congenital defects, choosing occupations one is genetically best suited for, in vitro fertilization, cloning and so on.

Haldane believed science, politics and ethics could not be disentangled. He was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and indeed was chair of the editorial board of the party’s paper, The Daily Worker when it was banned for a time. Lysenko and Stalin presented him with a dilemma – tension between his science and Lysenkoism. Although he quit the party in 1950, he never formally renounced Lysenko or Stalin. M15 assiduously followed him around and compiled a large file on him but there is no evidence that he was ever a Soviet spy. He even managed to stir up controversy after his death from cancer when John Maynard Smith, Haldane’s student and fellow communist for a time (Smith quit the party over Lysenko in 1948) reported that Haldane had anticipated Hamilton’s inclusive fitness principle by declaring that he would lay down his life for two siblings or four cousins.

Subramanian effectively admits that the terms “modern” and “synthesis” ring a little hollow these days in light of contemporary findings about epigenetic inheritance and the emphasis on ecology and development as well as heredity leading to calls for a “new” or an “extended” synthesis. Somehow I doubt that Haldane would have minded – he always welcomed unexpected findings.

Written by Marion Blute

October 27, 2020 at 2:46 pm

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A Debate Over Senescence

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The debate over theories of senescence (commonly defined as a decrease in function with age) that has gone on in the pages of TREE (Trends in Ecology & Evolution) is interesting but I will not try to summarize all the arguments here, see [1-6]. The key issue dividing champions of Hamilton [1,4,6] versus those of Williams [2,3,5] seems to be whether extrinsic mortality must be condition-dependent to select for senescence [1,4,6] or whether it just has to be extrinsic period [2,3,5]. Many points could be made about either (and indeed about both) sides of this argument. It seems strange to see two of the great evolutionary biologists of their time pitted against each other by others, especially since according to the first side at least, Williams eventually agreed with Hamilton anyway. The debate seems to be all about time but what about space? If the discussion is all about extrinsic mortality, what about intrinsic mortality? Is there such a thing? There must be believed to be, otherwise why the need to distinguish some mortality as extrinsic? Intrinsic mortality sounds like senescence itself, but then it is supposed to be extrinsic mortality that selects for senescence so . . .? Density dependence is mentioned but the classic works that initiated modern discussions of it are not mentioned or cited [7,8]. It seems obvious to me that senescence is indeed density dependent [9,10].

Small organisms (which also tend to have short, fast life cycles and many small offspring), because of their disproportionate surface area (for a sphere = 4π r2), tend to consume (eat and excrete) more, depleting and degrading the external environment, and hence to suffer mortality from extrinsic causes (predation, parasites, accidents etc.) Large organisms (which also tend to have longer, slower life cycles and fewer, larger offspring capable of producing grand offspring), because of their disproportionate volume (for a sphere = 4/3π r3), tend to digest (break down and build up) more, depleting and degrading the internal environment, and hence to suffer mortality from intrinsic causes (developmental, physiological, behavioural etc.) i.e. senescence. The argument is that the former are adapted to low density (in per capita cost and/or frequency) relative to resources i.e. plentiful resources within a population, or among populations, growing ones with a history of catastrophes and hence consume/produce more. The latter are adapted to high density (in per capita cost and/or frequency) relative to resources i.e. scarce resources within a population, or among populations, declining ones with a history of bonanzas and hence digest/reproduce more – struggling morphologically, physiologically and behaviourally to build up mechanisms of escape in time, space and/or niche. Of course, further distinctions could be drawn. Somatic and reproductive and temporal and spatial properties of life cycles are not perfectly correlated. Density relative to antagonists matters too, low in that case being bad conditions and high good ones. It matters whether the consumption is by means of parasitism or predation and so on.
Evidence? Well, we have long known experimentally that caloric restriction among the small fast, forcing them to devote fewer resources to consumption and hence by implication more to digestion, increases lifespan. But don’t we also know that caloric expansion among the large slow, devoting more resources to consumption and hence by implication less to digestion, decreases lifespan (e.g. obesity among humans)? The slogan for such a density dependent theory of senescence might be mice get eaten while men get cancer!
Now of course this argument is about different life histories rather than about stages within life histories. But given that juveniles are obviously smaller and adults obviously larger, surely the analogous inference can be drawn from one to the other. Humans after all lavish food on their young even as they sometimes go without themselves. As adult humans we know that our young children get bug after bug (most of which they thankfully do not die of at least these days). But what do our parents die of? Number one is heart disease and number two is cancer. Thereafter there is in order a list of things  [11] which similarly do not have obvious extrinsic causes.

1.  Moorad, J. et. al. (2019) Evolutionary ecology of senescence and a reassessment of Williams’ “extrinsic mortality” hypothesis. Trends Ecol. Evol. 34, 519-530
2.  Day, T. and Abrams, P.A. (2020) Density dependence, senescence and Williams’ hypothesis. Trends Ecol. Evol. 35, 300-302. 
3.  Kozlowski, J. et. al. (2020) Williams’ prediction will often be observed in nature. Trends Ecol. Evol. 35, 302-303.
4.  Moorad J. et. al. (2020) George C. Williams’ problematic model of selection and senescence: time to move on. Trends Ecol. Evol. 35, 303-305.
5.  da Silva, J. (2020) Williams’ intuition about extrinsic mortality was correct. Trends Ecol.  Evol. 35, 378-379.
6.  Moorad, J. et. al. (2020) Williams’ intuition about extrinsic mortality is irrelevant. Trends Ecol. Evol. 35, 379.                       
7.  MacArthur R.H. (1962) Some generalized theorems of natural selection. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 48, 1893-1897.
8.  MacArthur, R.H. and Wilson, E.O. (1967) The Theory of Island Biogeography. Princeton  University Press.
9.  Blute, M. (2010) Darwinian Sociocultural Evolution: Solutions to Dilemmas in Cultural and Social Theory. Cambridge University Press.
10.  Blute, M. (2016) Density-Dependent Selection Revisited: Mechanisms Linking Explanantia and Explananda. Biological Theory 11, 113-121.
11.  National Vital Statistics Report. United States Life Tables (2019)

Written by Marion Blute

September 21, 2020 at 1:39 pm

New Definition of Evolution by Natural Selection

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The third thing (beyond density-dependence and mating markets) that I have expanded on since I wrote the book on Darwinian Sociocultural Evolution a decade ago is the proposed new definition of evolution by natural selection.

The definition there was:
“Microevolution by natural selection is any change in the inductive control of development (whether morphological, physiological or behavioural) by ecology and/or in the construction of the latter by the former which alters the relative frequencies of (genetic or other) hereditary elements in a population beyond those expected of randomly chosen variants.” In my haste to include the ecologically inductive and developmentally constructive pathways, I omitted the traditional hereditary (e.g. genetic mutation or recombination route)! In Blute (2017) I explained how all of these are possible but did not include a definition. So in Blute (2019) I offered a new, new definition, most concisely:

“microevolution by natural selection is any change initiated by inheritance, ecology, or development that alters the relative frequency of (genetic or other) hereditary elements in a population beyond those expected or randomly chose variants.”

Blute, Marion. 2017. “Three Modes of Evolution by Natural Selection and Drift: A New or Extended Evolutionary Synthesis.” Biological Theory 12(2): 67-71.
Blute, Marion. 2019. “A New, New Definition of Evolution by Natural Selection.” Biological Theory 14(4): 280-81.

Written by Marion Blute

June 2, 2020 at 2:28 pm

Mating markets

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Darwinian Sociocultural Evolution Chpt. 4 was on social interaction within a population – competition, conflict and cooperation. After general discussions of relevant evolutionary principles, these were applied to gender differences and relations. The latter discussion was expanded on in Blute (2019).

Rather than males as reproductive parasites of females (as has often been thought, most likely at high densities relative to resources where the most common female ‘quality’ strategy would be most beneficial) or even females as reproductive predators of males (most likely at low densities where the most common male ‘quantity’ strategy would be most beneficial), the approach suggested that the sexes have somewhat different naturally-selected frequency and/or quality ecologically-oriented strategies and that sex is trade in these. The sexes have what economists call different “comparative advantages” compensating for the up to two-fold cost of sex. Males and females (or male and female functions in hermaphrodites) have sex i.e. then trade because males including females among their offspring and females including males among their offspring bet-hedges under uncertainty – reducing the risk of extinction for families, populations or species. Protecting the portfolio is the same reason why humans invest in index funds rather than trying to pick stocks or dollar cost average rather than trying to time markets. Sexual competition and selection on the other hand is conflict over the profits of that trade.

Because natural selection comes logically, historically and developmentally before sexual selection, the table in the 2019 article (see below) more clearly illustrates the consequences of the results of natural for sexual selection than did Table 2. on p. 100 of the book. For example, in line 1 below, if males are naturally selected to be more frequent and females to be higher quality (i.e. have a higher per capita cost), then the results for sexual selection would be males intrasexually selected (male-male competition for mates and/or gametes) and females intersexually selected (active choice for a male mate and/or gametes). Table 1 as a whole illustrates how combining quantity and quality approaches based on natural selection can explain the resulting conventional sex roles, the sex-role reversed, inter as well as intra sexual selection, and passive as well as active choice. As well, the approach implies that sexual selection could equilibrate the sex allocation instead of Fisher’s sex allocation principle and that Mayr’s species definition could be made explanatory. The latter can be restated as “a species is a biological, specifically a mating market, one isolated from other such markets”.

Table 1. Ecologically oriented, naturally selected frequency and mean quality of males and females and their implications for the directions and forms of sexual selection*

Males          Females      Direction and forms of sexual selection

M     Qm      F     Qf            

h      l          l      h          Males intrasexually selected, Females intersexually selected (active choice)

l       h         h     l           Females intrasexually selected, Males intersexually selected (active choice)

h      l          h     l          Both sexes mate multiply, Little or no sexual selection

l       h         l      h         Pair bonded, Little or no sexual selection

h      h         l      l          Males intra & intersexually selected (female passive choice)

l       l          h     h         Females intra & intersexually selected (male passive choice)

*M frequency of males, Qm mean quality of a male, F frequency of females, Qf mean quality of a female, h high, l low
Blute, Marion. 2019. “Mating markets: A naturally selected sex allocation theory of sexual selection.” Biological Theory    14(2) 2019: 103-111.

Written by Marion Blute

May 10, 2020 at 2:53 pm

Density-dependent natural selection may have implications for the coming decline side of the COVID-19 pandemic

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Chapter 3 of Darwinian Sociocultural Evolution on “Necessity: why did it evolve” discussed principles of evolutionary ecology, notably density dependence relative to resources in section 3.3.1., and applied them illustratively to the sociology of science. Subsequently Blute (2016) reviewed the history of, and greatly extended the theory. The extensions included its applicability to selection in space and/or time, to somatic functions as a cause and not just an effect (as in Fisher’s sex allocation theory for example), and to selection within and between, not just growing populations, but also declining ones. These may have implications for the coming declining side of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Where/when density measured in cost per capita relative to resources is low within a population, or in growing populations with a history of catastrophes, natural selection favours spending on consumption (eating and excreting) whereas where/when it is high or in declining ones with a history of bonanzas, selection favours investing in digestion (breaking down and building up). What should be built up? In a homogeneous environment it is mechanisms of social interaction whether cooperative, antagonistic or a mixture of both but in a patchy environment it is mechanisms of dispersal in time (maintenance), in space (motility), and/or in niche (mutability) – the 3 M’s. Similarly, low density measured in frequency or in growing populations with a history of catastrophes, natural selection favours production (many small offspring) whereas high densities or in declining ones with a history of bonanzas, selection favours “reproduction” (fewer larger offspring, ones capable of social interaction or their own 3M’s).

Both these somatic and reproductive distinctions are quantity versus quality ones with the former in each case depleting and degrading the external environment while the latter depletes and degrades the internal environment. As well, the former in each case is associated with a small size because of the disproportionate surface to volume ratio there and the latter of each associated with a large size because of the disproportionate volume to surface ratio there. Under the simplest set of conditions if both somatic and reproductive functions utilize the same or positively correlated resources and the two functions interact synergistically, then at low densities the more one consumes the more one can produce and vice-versa whereas at high densities the more one digests the more one can reproduce and vice-versa.

What then of COVID-19? Our culture is coevolving in interaction with their genes (gene-culture or culture-gene coevolution, between species in this case) and our culture has evolved favouring social distancing etc. in some places – depleting viral resources and causing a levelling off and decline in the viral population(s).  But our culture is now on the edge of reversing itself at least somewhat. What are the implications of that for the virus? Given that surely humans are a heterogeneous environment, selection on the viruses should then favour:
i) maintenance: those which live longer (e.g. making the recovered or infected but symptom free contagious for longer)
ii) motility: those which move further (e.g. placing themselves in small droplets which disperse further rather than just in large drops which tend to fall) and/or
iii) mutability: those which increase their blind mutation rate seeking a new niche (e.g. infecting organs other than respiratory systems such as kidneys, nervous systems etc.)

It is at least possible therefore that changes in their genes and not just in our culture will in the future be contributing to one or more further spikes in the pandemic until a vaccine is widely available or until the 70 or 80% infection rate required for herd immunity is reached.

Blute, Marion. 2016. “Density-dependent selection revisited: Mechanisms linking explanantia and explananda.” Biological Theory 11(2) 113-121.

Written by Marion Blute

May 3, 2020 at 4:22 pm

What would I change?

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I have sometimes been asked what would I change today in the book I published a decade ago on Darwinian Sociocultural Evolution: Solutions to Dilemmas in Cultural and Social Theory? Not a lot actually in the sense that it is largely free of those little flaws of typing, spelling, miswordings etc. thanks to Cambridge’s excellent text editor and two friends – Gail Greer and Hank Jerzy. As Hank put it then “reading for that is a different kind of reading”.

Of course Tang Shiping in the acknowledgments should have been Shiping Tang and there is the spelling mistake on the first page of the introduction – “complemented” for “complimented”! There are a few others. The caption for the diagram on p. 39 should have read “family tree of world’s language families” not of world’s languages; on p. 42 Darwin’s tree did not show several branches going off from a single point, only two; on p. 122 a space instead of an h was inserted in “that”; and on p. 77 the brackets on the equation for the logistic function ended up slightly misplaced – they should have been as in Blute (2016).

With respect to the chapter on “history: where did something come from” there has subsequently been a huge expansion by many investigators of applications of phylogenetic methods borrowed from biology to social and cultural subject matters. Many of these were reviewed in Blute & Jordan (2018). Together they more than confirm the thesis that the subject matters of the social sciences do indeed descend with modification. Similarly, I see no reason today to change the balanced approach I took on major issues – history and necessity, cooperation and conflict, the ideal and the material, reason and reinforcement, the subjective and the objective, culture and social structure, and the biological and the sociocultural. I have however subsequently expanded on the substance of three points. As is often said, one sees only through a glass darkly (at first at least). The three are density-dependent selection, sexual selection and the proposed new definition of evolution by natural selection. I intend to briefly explain each of these extensions in subsequent posts.

Blute, Marion. 2016. “Density-Dependent Selection Revisited: Mechanisms Linking Explanantia and Explananda.” Biological Theory 11(2) 113-121.
Blute, Marion & Fiona M. Jordan. 2018. “The Evolutionary Approach to History: Sociocultural     Phylogenetics.” In Rosemary L. Hopcroft (Ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Evolution,     Biology, and Society. Oxford University Press. Chpt. 28: 621-640.

Written by Marion Blute

April 28, 2020 at 3:47 pm