This is an incredibly powerful book (and that's not hyperbole). The authors state in the opening, "The core Darwinian principles involve variation, selection, and inheritance (or replication). The claim that Darwinism applies to social evolution must rest on a clear picture of what these concepts mean. Otherwise, the arguments and counterarguments become lost in a fog. Consequently, much of this work is devoted to clarifying concepts and refining definitions at a fairly abstract level...The primary aim of this book is to show that the core Darwinian mechanisms of variation, selection, and replication apply to social entities and processes, and we give some examples of how they pertain to business and other social phenomena." Now, given that this book has apparently been somewhat (erroneously) advertised as a business/economics book (I base this on the blurbs above, i.e. Marion Blue and the Financial Times), I can only say that this manuscript is much more than some Gordon Gekko manifesto - it only loosely applies to economic matters.
In order to keep this review as short as possible let me skip to the chase. The authors begin with a historical account of several individuals who attempted to harness Darwinism (what the author's later call `Generalized Darwinism'), which is simply the application of Darwinism to social phenomenon; the two most discussed individuals are David George Ritchie and Thorstein Veblen. Also, the authors are quick to point out that this is not `Social Darwinism' in the traditional sense of the term (for more information on that path I would suggest reading: Eugenics and the Nature-Nurture Debate in the Twentieth Century (Palgrave Studies in the History of Science and Technology)). The authors then move towards explaining the confusion between the `Detail Level' and the `Abstract Level': "While the biological and the social are different levels of the same world, the detailed ontology of (say) genes is different from the detailed ontology of (say) the immune system, and both are very different from the detailed ontology of the human social world. A generalized Darwinism proposes that, despite these real and severe ontological differences at the level of detail, there are, nevertheless, also common ontological features at an abstract level. Precisely because it abstracts from detailed ontological differences, a generalized Darwinism cannot explain everything." Next, the authors discuss why some alternative theories are deficient (the problem of human intentionality, principles of self-organization, the "continuity hypothesis," and Lamarckism). Another great contribution this book makes is explaining exactly where Richard Dawkins (the 800-pound gorilla) has gone wrong in his works [e.g. The Selfish Gene: 30th Anniversary Edition--with a new Introduction by the Author]. They do this by drawing upon works by other heavy-hitters such as David Sloan Wilson [Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives] and Elliot Sober [Evidence and Evolution: The Logic Behind the Science]. Furthermore, the authors detail the reasons why the concept of the "meme" and the science of "memetics" never panned out [e.g.: Darwinizing Culture: The Status of Memetics as a Science]. So, once the authors have cleared the drawing board by explaining what they don't believe is useful, Hodgson and Knudsen begin to lay the groundwork for a much more robust explanatory generalized Darwinism. And this is where the book really takes off.
First, they give a detailed account of what the analogs to the genotypes and phenotypes are, which are the `Generative Replicator' and the `Interactor'. Also, they detail the conditions that must be met in order for an entity to be considered a Replicator or Interactor. This is quite substantial in-and-of itself; however, as I was reading I found a great deal of explanatory power in the book that wasn't explicitly mentioned by the authors. Here are three examples:
1. "Habit replication also often relies on imitation, which need not be fully conscious and can involve some "tacit learning." Imitation can result from an instinctive propensity that has itself evolved for efficacious reasons among social creatures." This is, which the authors don't mention, what I believe is exactly what `Mirror Neurons' do. This is explored by others such as Antonio Damasio in Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain and Marco Iacoboni in Mirroring People: The New Science of How We Connect with Others.
2. "[Sidney] Winters argues that, although tacit or other knowledge must reside in the nerve or brain cells of a set of human beings, its enactment depends crucially on the existence of a structured context in which individuals interact with each other. More broadly, much of the information that is used and transmitted in a culture is embedded in social structures and organizations, in the sense that its existence and transmission depend on them." This is, which the authors don't mention, what I believe is exactly what the `Extended/Embedded/Embodied Cognition' is all about. This is explored by others such as Lawrence Shapiro in Embodied Cognition and Richard Menary in The Extended Mind (Life and Mind: Philosophical Issues in Biology and Psychology).
3. "Through a shared language, one person can access the mental model of another. This transmission of mental models is improved by close interaction with error correction. By means of gestures and questions, agents establish joint attention that increases the accuracy of transmission of mental models and establishes mutual understandings. Language is a vital link in this causal chain. Without language, it would be much more difficult to communicate mental models and develop shared understandings at a detailed level. Habits of thought satisfy all four of our conditions for a generative replicator. They constitute conditional generative mechanisms that are essential to a generative replicator." This is, which the authors don't mention, exactly what John R. Searle discusses (especially his concept of a "Status Function Declaration" in his book Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization. In fact, I found that Searle's book and Darwin's Conjecture overlap to a great, and advantageous, extent. I would strongly recommend reading both books together.
In sum, the premise is very simple. Human instincts are grounded in our genetics (Genotype/ Replicator) which is "hosted" in our body (Phenotype/ Interactor). Our instincts are then subverted by our habits and reason (which are Generative Replicators), which we gain through exosomatic and symbolic systems. This is described in the last section of the book, where Hodgson and Knudsen detail historically and chronologically, how generalized Darwinism works through Replicators and Interactors on the `Genetic,' `Cultural,' and `Organizational' levels (there is also a great chart that shows this). For me, this book has filled a tremendous explanatory gap; I was able to place many different things into the model that the authors have devised. And there is more in the book (i.e. how group selection really works) that I don't have the time or the space to include. Suffice it to say that this book is exceedingly important and I hope it receives the attention it deserves by everyone, not just economists or business management types. Lastly, I found it much more beneficial than, Evolution--the Extended Synthesis, which tries to accomplish what Hodgson and Knudsen have done here. This is a fantastic book; I highly recommend it.