Cultural change

Anne M. Jensen (ajensen@CC.BRYNMAWR.EDU)
Wed, 11 May 1994 14:31:04 -0400

Seems like the reason that, as Christopher Matthews rightly points out,
people are talking past each other is that some are using the term
"evolution" in the 19th century social science mode, where progress to a
higher, more perfect state is implied, and others are using "evolution" in
the modern biological sense, where it refers to a certain type of change,
with no directionality or value judgements implied. I prefer the second

However, I've found that some people can't make the switch and will argue
against the first forever, even when told repeatedly that one agrees with
them that +that sort+ of evolution doesn't exist. One can often avoid much
pointless argument by referring to the phenomenon in question as "culture
change." The words seem to carry less baggage, and few will seriously
argue that humans today are living exactly as humans twenty thousand years
ago did, so they accept that cultures +do+ change.

I'm a little puzzled by some of the rest of Christopher Matthews' positions.

>The purpose of the
>enterprise to me is not scientific, instead it is comprehension of the
>struggles which people faced, and the structures of relations and power
>they built to deal with these struggles, and ultimately how these
>relations supported inequalities.

If this is meant as a statement of his research interests, great. If it's
meant to describe his vision of anthropology as a whole, it seems to be
assuming a number of things a priori which may well not be true for all
people at all times. In small groups which were basically egalitarian,
relations (social, to means of production??) did not always work to support
inequality and power was not always very important.

>Cultural evolution is unacceptable because it roots this
>understanding in factors outside of the control of people and into nature
>and structure.

In all cases, a particular type of explanation is incorrect? For someone
who seems to be advocating a fairly particularist approach earlier, this
seems a pretty doctrinaire statement :-). Not only that, but it would seem
to imply that "factors outside of the control of people" are not important
in understanding culture change? I certainly don't deny that
social/cultural/ideological factors do have an effect, and are primary at
times, but nature (the non-human environment, if you will) can be important

If you don't think so, consider the Thule expansion, and the subsequent
development of cultures in North Alaska, and the Central Arctic. The Thule
were whalers, and their extremely rapid expansion across the North American
Arctic coincided with a warm period in which the edge of the summer pack
ice moved north, and whales could get to the High Arctic to feed. The
Thule people appear to have "followed the whales." Whales are great; they
each contain many tons of food and fuel, and if you live in the right place
and go to the leads at the right time, they show up and all you have to do
is get a number of people together and kill and butcher a few. Since the
arctic is cold, you can store the resulting bounty for a long time. The
technology is essentially the same as that used to catch seals (toggling
harpoons and drag floats, just bigger). It's a pretty good way of life.
In North Alaska, it led to fairly large stationary villages, ranked
societies which may have been on the verge of becoming stratified, and
apparently some form of warfare. In many respects, the Thule's modern
Inupiat descendants are still living that way, albeit with some new
technological doodads (and with no warfare other than on the basketball
court) and a certain integration into the modern world monetary economy.
However, they think of themselves as +whalers+ today. The Inuit in the
central Arctic don't. Although they are also descended from Thule people,
they didn't live in large villages, nor have they taken baleen whales for
hundreds of years. Why give up such a great resource and subsist on
animals that bring 20-200 pounds of meat/fuel instead of tons? I wasn't
there at the time, so I can't guarantee that many people, who were widely
separated, didn't all of a sudden get the idea that they should avoid
bowhead whale meat and stop whaling, but I can't believe it. I think it
was because the climate got colder, and the whales stopped coming to that
area. Some people probably "followed the whales" back west, some focussed
on sealing, and some probably kept trying to whale and starved to death.

It can also be the case with modern state-level societies. Look at the
distribution of various forms of agriculture (corn, wheat, dairying) in
northeastern North America before and after the "Year without a Summer."

Much as we have the luxury of denying it, living in the vast technological
cocoon our amazingly properous society and relatively temperate climate
have swaddled us in, we are still biological beings. We must eat and drink
in adequate quantities and maintain appropriate body temperatures, and some
memebers of a group must reproduce, or that's it. Don't get anything to
drink for two weeks, and you're dead. It doesn't matter about your social
relations or what you think about drinking. Ideology is irrelevant, in
such instances.

Anne M. Jensen |"Truth burns up error."
Department of Anthropology |
Bryn Mawr College | -Sojourner Truth
Bryn Mawr, PA 19010 USA |

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