Re: Cult. Evol & Symbols

Fri, 30 Jun 1995 09:49:17 -0400

Hallo all and Vance in particular,

In answer to Vance Geiger's statement (below):

I'm in agreement with most of what you say - however, often,
(if I am not mistaken), conscious knowledge of the effects of certain
materially relevant activities is not necessarily assumed. They have
to argue this way simply because representatives from the societies
in question cannotbe aware of all of the ecological implications of
their activities. Even we are not, even with 'scientific ecology' as
a tool. If a *conscious* rational decisions cannot serve as a
(perfect) decision-making tool, then some or other selective process
must take place. In that case some or other 'feedback mechanism' must
be in operation about which the participants in the ecosystem are not
aware. This line of thinking, I think, creates all sorts of

Another possible line of argument would be that perhaps the 'failure
to make materially rational decisions' is characteristic of human
existence/culture. Perhaps the 'balance-imbalance' (evolution-
devolution) debate is an obfuscation of another reality - namely that
societies remain within certain ecological parameters more or less by
chance. (accepting of course that there almost every society in
existence had worked out some or other form of *managing* the
resources at their disposal).

'Cultural decisions' may cause them, perhaps sometimes even in a
chaotic fashion, to remain within those parameters or to go beyond
them. In many ecological situations (in the past) there seems to be
ample space to behave in a materially irrational manner for a
very long time. But - whenever they go beyond the parameters they
have to 'adapt or die', as an infamous statesman once said - and
there are many different ways to adapt/die. The issue here is that if
they do strive to regain a disrupted 'balance', it is only in
hindsight - because the business of surviving became more difficult
or less rewarding.

The choice to adapt by intensifying or extensifying production (new
technologies, forms of social org., or 'ecological
imperialism') then leads to what we *consider* to be
'development'. If for whatever reason the society is unable to
exercise these choices one could perhaps speak of
'change'/'devolution'/'underdevelopment' etc. Depends entirely on the
situation, I suppose...

Which reminds me:

I once heard a nice analogy to evolution/ which could under
circumstances also apply to 'development'. Alice running while in
wonderland - and the faster she runs the more she seems to be
standing on the same spot (populations & resource development, etc).
So, in order to 'maintain balance', change/development must
take place. There are too many stochastic factors involved, barring
for the moment all other more fundamental processes, for the striving
towards 'balance' (read stasis) to be adaptive.

It may, therefore and perhaps, be misleading to talk of Disneyland as
symptomatic of 'devolution'. Disney does produce more than symbols -
it produces a lot of money. It contributes to keeping a whole
industry going. In the course of producing symbols it links up with
(probably) every other major industry on this planet. Material
surplus (whether sustainable or no) provides space for culture to go
haywire, like a wedding is enjoyed while the wine lasts.

As the environmental externalities to the economic system begin to
impinge on human living conditions, the devoted surplus will decline.
As such, I don't think its useful to relate Disneyland to devolution -
humans are simply bad investment speculators. As a result we are
going to 'adapt or die' soon.


Conrad Steenkamp

Dept of Soc Anth
Wits Univ

I wrote:

> Remaining within Harris's framework:
> 1. Accepting, for the moment, that human development is driven
> primarily (remaining within the infrastructure aspect of
> Harris's model) by imbalances between human populations and
> environmental resources at a reigning technology - what causes
> the 'imbalance' to arise?
> 2. If culture is supposed to reflect material necessities and
> thereby maintain the relationship between populations and their
> environment, then culture has been doing a very bad job indeed.
> The mechanism which transfers material necessity to symbolic
> reflection: is it some kind of natural selection of cultural
> traits that is operative here? If so, this too could not have
> been functioning all that well. The human-environment
> relationship of most societies nowadays seems 'unbalanced'.
> 3. Even the HG and simple farming societies so often used in the
> debate *must have intensified their use of the environment at
> some or other stage to arrive at the 'level of techno-social
> development' and the supposed balance they are exhibiting now*.
> But what caused them to lack 'balance' at one stage, and then
> acquire 'balance' at another?
> 4. Could one not, therefore, argue that it is exactly *because*
> culture does *not* reflect material necessity (at least not
> perfectly) that we have the phenomenon called 'human
> development'.

Vance Geiger wrote:
> I would choose a term like "change" over development (development
> does, however, capture the evolutionist sentiment), however...
> The problem from a materialist view must be that: >

> 1. For material necessity to be determining (even
> probablistically) then the inference is that humans must be able
> to, and must, make materially rational decisions.

> > 2. The imbalance must result from a failure to persist in making
> materially rational decisions. Does this failure then result
> from a different way of thinking? And if so, why?
> 3. If the failre does not represent a different way of thinking,
> then there must be something about the way humans think that is
> limited in terms of accounting for all the information necessary
> to make materially rational decisions. Is this culture? I
> assume that materialists would say no because culture is
> determined by material conditions. Is this then cultural
> determinism?
> 4. If this is so, what is it that prompts the change? Are there
> boundary conditions to efficacious materially rational decision
> making? What are these conditions? What are the consequences of
> materially inefficacious decisions?
> All of this is largely tautological. The only way that any form
> of cultural evolution could be tested is through falsifying the
> predictions that are made, i.e. by implying that cultural de-
> evolution could take place. The point I considered is that if
> cultural materialism makes certain predictions based on the
> determining biases of the theory that are falsified by what
> people actually do in the future the implication is that by the
> definition of "evolution" proposed, de-evolution would have to
> take place. According to the determining processes assumed in
> cultural materialism, cultural determinism (the collective
> behavior of populations that are not materially rational) must be
> de-evolution.
> Thus the question: Are successful entities like Disney a sign of
> de-evolution? Disney produces nothing but symbols. In addition;
> to the degree that the symbols Disney produces which are consumed
> and which seriously distort the relationship between the material
> base or infrastructure, is the consumption of such symbolism
> perpetuating the de-evolution?