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Technology and Culture 43.2 (2002) 403-404
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Technological Innovation as an Evolutionary Process
Technological Innovation as an Evolutionary Process. Edited by John Ziman. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Pp. xvii+379. £64.95.
On several occasions between 1994 and 1997 John Ziman led a group of nineteen scholars, including historians, sociologists, economists, psychologists, computer scientists, and educators, in studies of technological innovation as an evolutionary process. Now, as a product of those meetings, Ziman—a physicist known for his writings on the social dimensions of science and technology—gives us a well-edited and tightly organized book. The main topic is subdivided into five sections that cover evolutionary thinking, innovation and culture, invention as a process, institutionalized innovation, and technological change viewed in wide perspective. Instead of ending with a final essay, Ziman reassembled the contributors and asked them to draw conclusions from the book's twenty-one chapters. This they did in a brief, but illuminating, "end-word."
My review concentrates on themes and authors familiar to historians of technology. Readers of this journal will recognize the names of W. Bernard Carlson, Edward W. Constant II, Paul A. David, Eva Jablonka, Joel Mokyr, Richard Nelson, and Walter G. Vincenti. The contributors also include distinguished experts from associated disciplines. Ziman wrote several chapters himself and coordinated the entire enterprise.
The book opens with six essays on the nature of, and problems concerning, evolutionary thinking about technology. At this point Ziman announces a crucial decision, namely, that for simplicity's sake the book will stress the evolution of tangible cultural objects such as "swords, cathedrals, turbojets, and pharmaceutical products" (p. 8). He and his authors know that material artifacts are embedded in a social context, but they place that context in the background. As a result, they do not attempt to merge evolutionism with systems thinking or social constructivism.
Part 1 deals with several key issues. Should the evolutionary analogy be based on Darwinism or Lamarckianism? Perhaps the analogy should not be biological at all but merely emphasize the primacy of selectionism? Might philosopher Donald T. Campbell's evolutionary epistemology offer a better starting point than Darwin's theory of organic evolution?
The next part covers specific technologies and practices in Japan and Europe, the discussions including animal versus human power in earlier Japanese agriculture, the fabrication of a complex artifact (a Japanese sword), and cathedral design and construction seen from a sociotechnical viewpoint. A final essay explores the varieties of learning in the evolution of technological practice and the misplaced emphasis on differences between Darwinian and Lamarckian evolutionary metaphors.
The third part is concerned with invention as a process and features the [End Page 403] telephone and the design of bridges and airplanes. It also considers creativity in the classroom environment and technological evolution as a stimulus in the search for algorithms to solve engineering problems. Parts 4 and 5 consider information as the prime unit of technological evolution, the need to couple technological evolution with conceptual evolution, the importance of the artifact/knowledge/organization amalgam in the evolution of technology, and the evolutionary linking of warfare and technology.
No short summary can do justice to the thoughtful arguments developed around these subjects. For present purposes, however, the contributors' five-page "end-word" is helpful. It suggests how we might think and write about technology after reading this book. The contributors agree that the evolutionary analogy cannot rise to the status of a model of technological change. Nor is it likely to compete with comprehensive theories on the order of social constructionism or historical determinism. Finally, it is not critical whether evolutionism is Darwinian or Lamarckian, or that every feature of biological evolution have an analogue in technology. But the evolutionary perspective definitely makes a positive contribution to the study of technology. It helps us to understand the role of learning and imagination in invention and the "emergence of new modes of change" (p. 315) over the long-term history of technology. Although it may not qualify as a model, the evolutionary analogy is "a very fruitful way of...