The 'left' of evolutionism

Tue, 10 May 1994 13:05:29 -0600

Matthews' discussion of the 'left' critique of evolutionism is interesting. I
must admit that I have been, at various times, convinced that this critique is
reasonable, but a more rounded understanding of evolution itself now makes the
position untenable for me. Evolution emphatically _does_ _not_ downplay the
role of choice, intent and agency in behavior. Choice, agency and behavior,
rather can/should be seen as mechanisms of change which can be accounted for
through a reasonable understanding of the factors influencing them. This would
and should call for an accounting of unequal access to production, as well as
socially significant phenomena such as reality construction. I don't
see anything particularly 'left' about this critique. The critique, as I
understand it, is based on a misunderstanding of evolutionary theory which
bears a striking resemblance to the misapprehensions under which people like
Spencer operated. Evolution does not have a necessary and contingent
trajectory throughout the human experience, it does not provide a way to
evaluate the relative merits of various human beings, ideas and cultures,
it is only as value laden as its practitioners. No evolutionist that I am
aware of uses to evolutionary theory to justify the way things are, but
merely to explain how they got that way. Obviously, explaining this can and
should involve careful attention to hegemonic institutions and unequal
distributions of power - whether or not the researcher supports them.
Since I consider myself to be more 'left' than right (despite being right-
handed), I found this critique somewhat alienating and disturbing. As Dunnell
frequently reminds us, however, 'if you want to understand evolutionary theory,
read evolutionary biology, NOT evolutionary anthropology.' I don't think that
criticisms based on general and vague impressions help anybody.


Matt Tomaso
Department of Anthropology
University of Texas at Austin