The question of what nationalism is, is one that seems obvious, or at least we can all recognize it when it’s in full motion. The question, though, of when nationalism begins and how it comes about, or perhaps even more focused, why we have nations at all, is one that is harder and yet unsettled. Part of my research is directed towards this question; of trying to understand why nation-states existed and came into being. In addressing this question, I approach it with the use of a Darwinian understanding of cultural, social and institutional change that I dub ‘Darwinian social evolution’.

The term ‘Darwinian’ and ‘social evolution’ can, not without justification, conjure up some horror images for sociologist, so an explanation is warranted. This is neither reheated social Darwinism, nor social evolutionary models in the old sense of stages of history and progress. What Darwinian social evolution does is take the core concepts of Darwin’s theory of evolution, and apply that towards understanding cultural, social and institutional development and change. The core concepts are the notion of variation, that there should be different varieties of entities; inheritance, that each entity can pass on its information structure; and selection, that due to environmental differences, certain of the entities will be more adapted than others[1]. Consequently, Darwinian social evolution is context dependent, what works in one environment may not in another, and so does not have a notion of universal progress, or notion that an entity, or social or institutional structure, is inherently superior to another. This enables the theory to break away from the spectres that have haunted notions of social evolution previously in sociology.

In this case of nationalism, this allows for an understanding of their development on their own terms. Nation-states and nationalism are modern phenomena, they do not emerge out of nothing. There are continuities and developments that need to be in place before it can come into formation. And this is not necessarily the same in every place, nor is it the case that nationalism always comes along with a development into modernity; different contexts may well provide different solutions to problems.

Darwinian social evolution focuses attention on the context and interconnections. Thus, for instance, it was not a natural form of progression through types that led to the nation-state becoming the dominant political formation in the world. Rather, it was the case that a few select powers in Western Europe became nation-states, and would subsequently only do dealings with similar power-structures. Consequently, if a country wanted to do any form of trading, or have a voice that would be listened to, it had to ape the nation-state formation. The political formation thus, initially, adapts to specific local environmental conditions, but then through the interconnections it can have a shaping power on the wider environment, remaking it such that other actors, whether individuals or collectives, need to adapt to the new changes.

The value of the Darwinian social evolutionary approach lies in the fact that it does not try and wed its understandings to universal notions of progress, or along the ‘stages of history’ idea, that treats certain formations as being more advanced, civilized or modern than others. Instead, by focusing on the environmental contexts, it understands different formations as being in response to certain pressures (political, environmental, cultural historical etc.) that exist at that place and in that time. There is no moral judgement applied to this either: in saying that one form won out against other available formations, this does not mean that the ‘winner’ is in some way morally superior or more just; it may not be. All it says is that, at the time in the given conditions, it happened to be the best available formation for those specific contexts and constraints. The key word there is available: selection only operates on formations and ideas etc. that exist and are there to be selected. It thus chooses, for want of a better word, the best that is available, not the best possible that can be conceived.

Can this tell us anything about the future? Darwinism does not make predictions, that for the most part is impossible. However, and this is part of what I am working on, we can look at existing contexts and pressures and then think through how these may inform the choices that are made, given the available variations. One such pressing concern is climate change, now seen as the climate crisis, and the direction that this might have. Part of my current research looks at what this could mean for nationalism and the nation-state, as the dominant forms of organization. In particular, the recent upsurge in anti-immigration sentiment, and closing of borders, seen in the United States and Europe in response to the refugee crisis, could be a presage of what is to come with regards to climate change. Certainly, if, as expected, the changes in weather and water level leads to an increase in refugee populations, it may be the case that the environmental pressures lead to a further hardening of borders.

But this is not inevitable. An important distinction between biological evolution and social evolution is that in the latter there is agency. We, as people, can choose; if the options are there and visible. So the response to a potential refugee crisis from climate change does not have to be the path we seem to be set on: by promoting other perspectives, providing more information and making more options available and possible for finding more progressive solutions, there could be moves away from this, towards selecting better varieties that are best for everyone. Darwinism, by understanding how and why certain variants get chosen over others in relation to the environment, can help us to choose better.

[1] This formulation is due to Geoffrey Hodgson and Thornjbørn Knudsen, from Darwin’s Conjecture: The Search for General Principles of Social and Economic Evolution. Chicago: Chicago University Press. 2010

William Kerr is a researcher in sociology, interested in subjects ranging across social change, nationalism, social theory and politics. He has a paper published in Nations and Nationalism on this topic, ‘The Descent of Nations: Social Evolutionary Theory, Modernism and Ethno-symbolism’, with another forthcoming in Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism. Currently his research continues to pursue questions concerning Darwinian social evolution in social theory, whilst also looking into intersections between nationalism and climate change.