Au contraire mon frere

Michael Forstadt (forstadt@HUSC.HARVARD.EDU)
Sun, 30 Jan 1994 17:51:54 -0500

In response to Steve Mizrach and Jerry Forstadt:

The Darwinian/memetic/selectionist model of evolution (as opposed to
traditional Lamarkian/adaptationalist approaches) is not as new to
anthropology as Mizrach and J.Forstadt appear to realize. In fact, Robert
Dunnell and his followers have been advocating such an approach in
archaeology for quite a few years. I believe that Dunnell's natural
selectionist approach does not necessarily represent a strict opposition
to traditional cultural evolutionary approaches. I'll tell you why.

By focusing on adaptation, many cultural evolutionists have failed to
recognize the critical distinction that biologists draw between *ecology*
and *evolution*. In short, adaptation is ecology (or cultural ecology)
and is a static, functional type of explanation that answers the
question: *why things are*. Evolution, on the other hand, seeks to
explain: *how things came to be*. When traditional cultural evolutionists
say that trait X is a result of adaptation, they fail to explain *how*
trait X actually came to be adapted. Dunnell and other selectionists
realize this distinction and believe that archaeologists and
anthropologists can benefit by employing Darwinian models of evolution to
cultural traits. Current biological theory is especially important to
incorporate into this program, since the concept of *inclusive fitness*
seems to be particularly useful for understanding the evolution of group

An important component of the biological model is the understanding that
evolution is not progressive; it does not have any directionality.
Increased complexity through time does not mean directionality and does
not imply that evolution is some sort of *force*. It is important to
recognize that "apparent progress" can often be explained in Darwinian
terms. This crucial distinction exposes traditional cultural evolution
for what it is: the legacy of Spencerian social philosophy rather than
Lamarkian science.

Contrary to recent claims on this list, the main problem with Dunnell's
approach is *not* the mode of transmission; Mendelian genetics are not a
prerequisite for biological evolution, and ordinary forces of social
reproduction are adequate to explain how cultural traits are passed down.
The major problem remains the identification of memes, or units of
variation: i.e., traits. Culture is so complex that this may never be
attainable. Mizrach's ad hoc "identification" of memes must be seen as
naive oversimplifications.

Perhaps the most ambitious attempt at applying a Darwinian model to
cultural evolution was David Rindos' explanation of the origins of
agriculture from a selectionist perspective. Rindos integrated and
synthesized biological and social processes and came up with a
coevolutionary scheme for the adoption of plant cultivation. This work
has been attacked from many angles (by adaptationalists, feminists,
others), emphasizing the problematic nature of selectionist research.
Many of these criticisms are valid, but I won't go into specific
arguments either way at this point.
Michael S. Forstadt
Department of Anthropology
Harvard University