EVOLUTION: One more stab at it

Michael Forstadt (forstadt@HUSC.HARVARD.EDU)
Mon, 21 Feb 1994 13:48:19 -0500

mild-mannered evolution debate which is currently underway on this list.
In other words, this is an unusual posting; one which does not seek to
draw lines or distinctions between the haughty and aristocratic
institutions (e.g., Harvard), those in the goyishe outland (e.g.,
Gainesville), or even the perfect median (somewhere on the north shore of
Long Island).

I am grateful for the recent exchanges between E.J. Ford and S. Mizrach
on cultural evolution, since they serve to highlight aspects of one of
the main theory splits in current archaeology (even though neither
Mizrach nor Ford are archaeologists, I assume). Although I have posted to
this list concerning the role of natural selection in cultural evolution
and my views concerning the utility or nonutilty of the meme concept, I
remain somewhat skeptical of Ford's position that all cultural behavior
is adaptive. This processualist view of culture change has come under
severe criticism (for good reason) in the archaeological literature of
recent years. In other words, I tend to agree with Mizrach (gasp!) that
cultural behaviors (his 'memes') can be quite arbitrary and neither
adaptive nor maladaptive. However, I respectfully reiterate my view that
since "meme" seems to be equated with "cultural trait," maybe we just
talk about cultural traits rather than confuse the issue with new terms.
But we've already been over this several times.

The work of the neo-Marxist school in archaeology is just one example of
recent attempts to recognize that human cultures can exhibit behaviors
which will produce internal contradictions and eventually cause culture
change. This change (and the traits which produce it) may have nothing to
do with environmental factors or adaptation. Although these theories are
extremely difficult (if not impossible) to prove in the context of
archaeological research, social anthropological studies have tended to
confirm that the complexity of human behavior is not strictly explicable
in adaptive terms. I tend to think that archaeologists (and some social
anthropologists) have overemphasized the role of adaptation only because
it simplifies explanation and reduces cultural variability to an elegant,
easily-digested model. Real life, however, is much more complex.
Mike Forstadt
Department of Anthropology
Le Nouveau Versailles