Review of Austrian Economics, 13: 5–22 (2000)
2000 Kluwer Academic Publishers
The Emergence of Hayek’s Ideas
on Cultural Evolution
Department of Economics, UNC-Greensboro, PO Box 26165, Greensboro, N.C. 27402-6165
Abstract. F. A. Hayek’s writings on cultural evolution are an essential part of his work, and some aspects of
these writings (e.g., his defense of group selection) have generated considerable controversy. This historical paper
traces the circumstances that led Hayek to introduce cultural evolution and related ideas into his work.
JEL classiﬁcation: B25, B31.
Hayek’s writings on cultural evolution are some of his most controversial. Some of the
criticisms that have been advanced are:
1) that his analysis of the evolutionary process is too pessimistic, leaving little room for
attempts to improve the institutional or constitutional setting;
2) that Hayek’s endorsement of group selection as the mechanism by which cultural insti-
tutions are selected is inconsistent with his methodological individualism; and
3) that group selection itself has been discredited among biologists on grounds that are
germane to its applications in the social sciences.
The secondary literature that deals with these and other aspects of his writings on cultural
evolution has become quite large.
Aseparate,morehistoricalquestion is:What werethe circumstancessurrounding Hayek’s
decision to introduce cultural evolution into his work? Given that the decision also appears
to have accompanied a movement away from economics into other, new areas of study,
it is clearly a signiﬁcant episode in the evolution of Hayek’s thought.
Within the secondary literature, only Geoff Hodgson has ventured a guess about the
matter. Hodgson claims that cultural evolution was a late development in Hayek’s work,
and suggests that this was because Hayek’s opposition to scientism kept him from exploring
metaphors developed in the physical sciences (Hodgson 1993:158). In a separate paper
(Caldwell (forthcoming)) I have criticized many aspects of Hodgson’s characterization of
I gratefully acknowledge comments received from Peter Boettke, Stephen Kresge, and two anonymous referees,
none of whom share blame for any errors committed herein.