Darwin and Foucault

Thu, 12 May 1994 15:09:33 -0600

Chris Matthews, Nancy Bowles and I share some common interests - making
historic and ethnohistoric archaeology a vehicle for cultural critique. I am
posting this agenda partly in hopes that Chris and Nancy might respond
privately or publically to it and partly to clarify my own position.

Daniel A. Foss made a series of very interesting and reasonable stabs at
clarifying the evolutionism issue earlier. For example:

> For culture and society, there are no analogues to organismic death, hence
>none, too, to Natural Selection. The usage "evolution" is a metaphor, as said
>above; also a snare and delusion.

Many of the evolutionists on the Dunnellian side of this debate would argue
the nature/culture dichotomy is false, constructed, and simply an anthro-
centric means of distancing human beings from the rest of the world. I do
not wholly agree with this perception. I _do_ believe that evolutionary theory
is a good place to start if you want to explain what Julian Steward called
'cultural ecology' - like the interaction between human populations and their
surroundings. I wrote 'human populations' because I don't think that many
'cultural evolutionists' in archaeology today believe that the study units they
deal with are necessarily 'cultures', 'societies', or 'ethnicities' in any but
most ecologically oriented senses of the words. This, effectively, gets them
out of the bind of having to explain in what sense cultures 'die' are 'reborn',
or simply change or go on. Fortunately for people interested in this kind
of study, the archaeological record does provide environmental data.

The reason why I do not wholly agree with the idea that the nature/culture
construct is useless is because I believe that it is an excellent heuristic
(just as evolutionism is, within limits). What I mean by this is that the
subjectively constructed social world is the one in which we live and the
one upon which we act. If 'evolution' is no more and no less than a social
fact or a representation tied to specific spatio-temporal and socio-political
moments in the human experience , then, for all intents and purposes, it is a
_non-trivial_ fact which must be dealt with. But what of our current (and at
least equally valuable) concept of power and ideology - the social and
hegemonic construction of Reality - ? Well, it too, I'm afraid, must fall
to its own critique. Yes it is a social fact, and yes it is an ideology.
of these critical positions, I would argue, are really valid criticisms since
can and must act upon our understandings/assumptions of social facts.

I might look to Foucault and Gramsci when I want to explain changes in the
production of social fact. I might look to Darwin or Dunnell, or even our own
Dave Rindos, to help me understand changes in human resource utilization and
ecology. I see no necessary contradiction between the two positions, only a
difference in concerns. I do a little cultural ecology in prehistoric
archaeology, and I also do cultural criticism in more textually illuminated
subfields. I do not expect Darwinian evolution to provide me with models to
explain capitalism and hegemony, and I do not expect Foucault to explain food
production techniques. For example, Dunnell might look at the transition to
agriculture in terms of its demographic, ecological and population-wide
effects, while others might want to try to understand who benefitted from it,
why, who prescribed it, and who paid for it. Culture is, in my mind, a
multifacted and multifunctional artifact. One side of the story is never

Adoption of a paradigmatic position, I argue, requires a reasonable
understanding of its limitations. This kind of Evolutionism and the concepts
of Power and ideology are paradigmatically incommensurable, not incompatible.
Perhaps we might all profit from an articulation of these positions and a
recognition of their complementarity, rather than the construction of yet
another oppositional theoretical relationship.


Matt Tomaso
Department of Anthropology
University of Texas at Austin